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Greater support from government authorities will be needed if the UK is to realize the full benefits of 5G, says a new report from the UK operator.

Iain Morris

June 29, 2020

4 Min Read
Vodafone silent on Huawei as it values 5G at £158B to UK economy

Pro-5G telco lobbyists in the UK spend much of their time resisting a political campaign to ban Huawei. Vodafone's latest entreaty instead makes not a single reference to the controversial Chinese vendor, which supplies about a third of the equipment for its radio access network (RAN).

In a just-published report, commissioned from WPI Economics, the UK network operator identifies £158 billion ($194 billion) in 5G-related productivity benefits over the next decade. But to unleash this "technology revolution," the country needs more ambitious 5G targets and its network operators need more supportive government measures, says Vodafone.

Those could include a targeted government procurement strategy and more funds for town infrastructure. Unsurprisingly, Vodafone is also reiterating its demands for better access to dark fiber – most of which is owned by BT – and the removal of various planning obstacles. It wants tax relief, too.

Despite these gripes, 5G rollout has proceeded quite smoothly in the past year. Analysts at Omdia, a sister company to Light Reading, recently put the UK sixth in world rankings of 5G progress, and second only to Switzerland in Europe. BT, O2 and Vodafone all boast 5G coverage in dozens of cities and towns.

The main threat to the UK's 5G position comes not from anything on Vodafone's wish list. Rather, it is that government authorities decide to ban Huawei as a "high-risk vendor," bowing to US officials who were horrified when a January compromise merely restricted the Chinese firm's role.

Vodafone itself has estimated the cost of a ban at "hundreds of millions" and complained it would jeopardize the UK's standing in 5G leadership rankings of the kind prepared by Omdia.

While it has avoided using Chinese products in its core and transmission networks, Vodafone did rely on Huawei for 32% of its RAN sites in March last year, when it shared details with reporters of its various suppliers.

Under the January proposals, which would limit Huawei to 35% of any 5G RAN, Vodafone would appear to be on relatively safe ground. The ban sought by some US-aligned members of the governing Conservative Party would necessitate a major swap-out of Huawei's 4G equipment.

Politicians demanding a ban on security grounds are not the only problem, either. Peers in the UK's House of Lords, its upper chamber of parliament, have reportedly proposed legislation that would outlaw Huawei because of China's record on human rights.

An overt reference to Huawei in Vodafone's latest report may have looked out of place, distracting the reader from other important issues. But its omission seems just as odd.

The closest Vodafone comes to acknowledging a supplier issue is when it asks the government to provide more support for "open RAN," a system that would – in theory – make it easier to build a mobile network featuring products from more than one supplier.

Some operators and government officials believe new open RAN companies could eventually provide an alternative to Huawei.

Want to know more about 5G? Check out our dedicated 5G content channel here on Light Reading.

Highlighting the critical role played by a Chinese supplier might not have been wise in a report that draws attention to 5G's economic payoff.

If 5G really is worth £158 billion to the UK economy, keeping risky suppliers out of the frame would seem essential. Critics may seize on Vodafone's findings as justification for a swap-out that costs only hundreds of millions and delays deployment by a couple of years.

What's unclear from the published paper is how WPI Economics or Vodafone arrived at the £158 billion figure. While there is a detailed breakdown of the economic benefits by region, no details of the methodology for calculating these benefits are provided.

Instead, Vodafone reaches for the clichés of remote surgery and connected cars as examples of economy-boosting future 5G services. The technology, it adds, will also increase capacity for existing services, reduce the signaling lag (latency) on mobile networks and underpin an "Internet of Things" with many millions of device connections.

However unexciting some of that might sound to the average consumer, these features cannot simply be dismissed as a mere upgrade to 4G. Just as that technology made possible a mobile Internet revolution that 3G had failed to deliver, 5G could lead to services and opportunities that no one today can envisage.

Even if 5G underwhelms, the coronavirus pandemic has made fixed and mobile broadband services absolutely critical to the national economy. Authorities would do well to remove planning obstacles and ensure service providers can easily access the infrastructure they require. Tackling the Huawei issue will be much tougher.

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— Iain Morris, International Editor, Light Reading

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About the Author(s)

Iain Morris

International Editor, Light Reading

Iain Morris joined Light Reading as News Editor at the start of 2015 -- and we mean, right at the start. His friends and family were still singing Auld Lang Syne as Iain started sourcing New Year's Eve UK mobile network congestion statistics. Prior to boosting Light Reading's UK-based editorial team numbers (he is based in London, south of the river), Iain was a successful freelance writer and editor who had been covering the telecoms sector for the past 15 years. His work has appeared in publications including The Economist (classy!) and The Observer, besides a variety of trade and business journals. He was previously the lead telecoms analyst for the Economist Intelligence Unit, and before that worked as a features editor at Telecommunications magazine. Iain started out in telecoms as an editor at consulting and market-research company Analysys (now Analysys Mason).

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