BT & Vodafone Rally Around Huawei

LONDON -- Connected Britain -- UK telcos BT and Vodafone have reiterated calls for the government not to impose a 5G ban on Huawei as the US continues to wage a campaign against the controversial Chinese vendor.

Despite the efforts of Huawei's rivals to prove they are a viable substitute, executives from the two operators said banning the Chinese vendor -- now the world's biggest supplier to communications service providers globally -- would hinder the rollout of next-generation 5G networks and be a huge setback for the UK economy.

"I think it would be a great shame and slow us all down and give us less choice in the market," said Neil McRae, BT's chief architect, during a panel session at this week's Connected Britain event in London. "While national security is a concern there are lots of safeguards in place and if that ban happens there will be a downside -- not just for the UK but for digital tech as a whole."

Scott Petty, the chief technology officer of Vodafone UK, said he was in broad agreement. "The risk is manageable in the RAN [radio access network] and not using Huawei equipment would slow down deployment and we'd have to swap out sites first," he said.

Operators are pushing back against US claims that Huawei poses a threat to security because of its close links to the Chinese government. US hardliners have argued that Huawei's products may include "backdoors" for Chinese spies.

The UK has come under pressure because it shares critical intelligence with US authorities -- as a member of the "Five Eyes" intelligence-sharing club of nations -- and may be seeking a favorable trade deal with the US when it leaves the European Union later this year.

The Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) was thought to be leaning toward excluding Huawei from the vulnerable "core" network systems but allowing it to sell 5G radio gear to UK operators.

Such a move would have limited impact on the UK's operators. BT is the only one that uses Huawei in its mobile core, and it already plans to replace the Chinese vendor with Cisco, Ericsson or Nokia when it migrates to a 5G network.

But Jeremy Wright, the Secretary of State for the DCMS, last week said US moves against Huawei have made a UK decision about the Chinese vendor's role in 5G networks "a more difficult judgment than it was before."

His remarks came after Huawei's name was added to a US trade blacklist that stops US companies from selling to or buying from the Chinese vendor without a special government license. The measure could prove crippling because some of Huawei's products rely heavily on US components.

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A UK radio ban would be a major concern because most operators are dependent on Huawei in that part of the network. Although 5G equipment is still not widely deployed, Vodafone reckons it would have to replace Huawei's 4G basestations to guarantee interoperability with the new 5G vendor.

That is despite recent entreaties by Ericsson and Nokia, Huawei's main 5G rivals, which say they have the technologies to address this interoperability problem.

Nokia has made a big deal about an "overlay" technology that would allow a 5G customer to retain Huawei's 4G basestations. "If you have another vendor's 4G and want to bring in Nokia's 5G, then rather than use this other vendor's 4G as the link to 5G you introduce a thin layer of Nokia 4G," said Rajeev Suri, Nokia's CEO, in a recent discussion with Light Reading.

On the RAN side, BT currently relies on Huawei in urban areas and Nokia in less densely populated areas, while Vodafone says Huawei equipment is used at about 6,000 of its 18,000 mobile sites. Ericsson accounts for the remaining RAN footprint bar 12% of Nokia sites but is replacing its Finnish rival in Vodafone's network.

BT is now considering whether to introduce a third RAN vendor alongside Huawei and Nokia, said Howard Watson, BT's chief technology and information officer, in a recent conversation with Light Reading.

Three, the smallest of the four mobile network operators, picked Huawei as its sole 5G RAN supplier earlier this year, despite using Nokia for 3G and Samsung as a 4G vendor.

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— Iain Morris, International Editor, Light Reading

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