Huawei to be stopped from selling fiber products in UK

British government tightens some of its restrictions on the Chinese vendor but gives operators more time to make changes after pandemic disruption.

Iain Morris, International Editor

February 22, 2022

5 Min Read
Huawei to be stopped from selling fiber products in UK

Huawei looked far too Chinese for its own good when the British began worrying about so-called "high-risk vendors" in the country's 5G networks.

Despite its protestations of independence from China's rulers, it was roundly condemned as a security risk by the Boris Johnson-led government. Operators that had gorged on Huawei products were ordered to flush it out of their mobile systems by 2028.

That was enough time, everyone seemed to agree, for the avoidance of any disruption. But authorities held off making a firm decision about the fiber products used in fixed broadband networks. Now they have weighed in with new proposals there and some relaxation of other requirements.

Previously, operators had been told to reduce Huawei's presence to 35% of the 5G and 35% of the full-fiber access networks by January 2023. Under changes proposed in recent days, they will now have until July 2023 to hit these targets.

The Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS), which announced the update, appears to have taken pity on operators amid the pandemic, citing the "difficulties" they have faced.

Figure 1: A less common sight in the UK since the government announced its ban. (Source: Huawei) A less common sight in the UK since the government announced its ban.
(Source: Huawei)

There is still no move to banish Huawei from full-fiber networks in future. Authorities had resisted such a tough approach out of concern about the lack of alternatives – only Finland's Nokia qualified as another "scale" vendor of full-fiber products.

Instead, the government wants operators not to install any "sanctions-affected Huawei equipment" from now on. That reflects concern that Huawei would have had to fall back on components from less trusted sources when it was cut off from its US suppliers.

It is probably some relief for BT, which has built a part of its full-fiber network with Huawei and lobbied to retain Chinese equipment until the early 2030s. A ban that forced it to rip out Huawei equipment would drive up costs and hinder full-fiber rollout.

Authorities probably desisted because this could also have upset their national "gigabit" ambitions. If these rules take effect, no one will be more pleased than Adtran and Nokia, BT's other full-fiber vendors, because BT will have to build the rest of its network using their products.

Unsurprisingly, Huawei is not so happy. "Political pressures have already forced the government to exclude Huawei from 5G, delaying its rollout by several years," it said in a statement. "These same pressures will jeopardize the rollout of fiber broadband, unnecessarily pushing up costs for businesses and families."

More time on mobile

On the mobile side, the six-month delay could reflect concern about the impact of the global semiconductor shortage on rollout and pricing, said John Strand, the CEO of Danish advisory firm Strand Consult.

But he has previously criticized the suggestion by Huawei and operators that a mandated swap-out by end-2027 would be especially disruptive or costly. Operators in other countries have swapped vendors far more quickly and without incurring additional costs, he has argued. And much of the 4G equipment that had to be swapped at the same time (for interoperability reasons) looked due for replacement anyway.

Moreover, none of the UK operators has complained about the timetable in the last two years. Of the four UK firms with nationwide mobile networks, BT looked the most heavily reliant on Huawei at the time of the ban, having used its products across two-thirds of its radio access network. It moved quickly to announce Ericsson as a new vendor and signed a 5G deal with Nokia, its other existing supplier.

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

O2 (now Virgin Media O2) had virtually no Huawei equipment whatsoever, while Three was at the early stages of a 5G rollout with Huawei, after relying on Nokia for its 3G network and South Korea's Samsung for its 4G one. Like BT, it has quickly shifted from Huawei to Ericsson.

That leaves Vodafone, which only ever used Huawei across one third of UK mobile sites, according to Scott Petty, its chief digital officer, during an update in 2019. Its main challenge seems to be complying with the end-2027 ban. Vodafone is introducing open RAN – a relatively immature technology – across about 2,500 Huawei sites and has not announced a plan for the other 3,500 where Chinese equipment is used.

The other concern for the UK government is the "core," the sensitive control center of the network. It has demanded that all Huawei products be removed from the core by end-January 2023, just 11 months from now.

BT inadvertently acquired a 4G core from Huawei with its 2016 takeover of EE. It is shifting to a 5G core supplied by Ericsson that will also support 4G customers, allowing it to jettison the Huawei system. The government clock is ticking.

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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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