LONDON -- 5G World -- 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," said a senior British government minister at today's 5G World event in London.
Jeremy Wright, the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS), said he could not offer the UK's network operators any assurance that a decision would be taken soon despite growing concern that uncertainty could hold up the UK's deployment of 5G networks.
The UK has been under pressure from President Donald Trump's administration to impose a blanket 5G ban on Huawei. US authorities regard the vendor as a potential conduit for Chinese government spies and have recently moved to block deals between Huawei and its US suppliers.
The latest developments come several weeks after a UK government leak suggested a supply chain review by the DCMS -- originally expected in May -- would seek to ban Huawei from the vulnerable "core" of 5G mobile networks but allow it to continue selling radio equipment.
Such a decision would have a limited impact on UK operators. Telecom incumbent BT is the only one of the country's four mobile network operators to use Huawei in its mobile core, and it already plans to replace the Chinese vendor with Cisco, Ericsson or Nokia in line with internal company rules.
BT's rules about keeping Chinese vendors out of the core network date back to the early years of the century, but the operator's acquisition of EE in 2016 landed it with Huawei technology in EE's mobile core.
A blanket ban on Huawei, excluding it from all 5G business, would be far more troubling for BT as well as Vodafone and Three UK. All those operators have built radio access networks using Huawei's technology and say a 5G radio ban would force them to rip out 4G gear at considerable cost to ensure there are no interoperability problems with a new 5G vendor.
BT and Vodafone have already launched commercial 5G offerings in parts of the country, while Three this week said it would introduce a London-based 5G service in August and extend this to another 25 cities and towns by the end of the year.
Uncertainty over the government's position now threatens to hold up 5G rollout. Extending 5G networks based on Huawei technology would be a risky move because the supply chain review might force them to remove that equipment in future.
Although Wright did not mention Huawei by name at today's event, he made a clear reference to the Chinese company when asked about the status of the review. "In relation to the supplier you have in mind there are some complications and decisions in the US that make this a more difficult judgement than it was before," he said. "I can't give you assurance you will hear instantly about deliberations. I have been listening to the sector and we'll do it as soon as we can."
Wright also said "one or two other things" could slow down the process, in a possible reference to Brexit and the selection of a new Conservative Party leader and prime minister following the resignation of Theresa May.
May quit earlier this month after failing to win parliamentary support for her deal to leave the European Union (EU). The UK is currently set to exit the EU with or without a deal at the end of October.
The Brexit process could influence the decision about Huawei as the government tries to negotiate a favorable trade agreement with the US once it is outside the EU.
Of the operators that use Huawei in their radio networks, BT relies on its equipment in urban areas and on Finnish rival Nokia in less densely populated communities, while Vodafone says about 6,000 of its 18,000 mobile sites contain Huawei equipment.
Three has given all its 5G radio business to Huawei after using Nokia as a 3G supplier and South Korea's Samsung in the 4G network.
Howard Watson, BT's chief technology and information officer, recently told Light Reading he was considering whether to introduce a third radio supplier, alongside Huawei and Nokia, given the current circumstances.
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— Iain Morris, International Editor, Light Reading