UK operators Vodafone and Three are moving ahead with 5G rollout plans on the assumption that Chinese kit supplier Huawei will not be excluded from radio access network (RAN) infrastructure contracts.
Both companies have been in discussions with government authorities about the controversial Chinese vendor, which US hardliners want banned from European 5G networks on national security grounds.
While neither telco uses Huawei in the potentially vulnerable "core" (the intelligent part of the network), both invest in its 4G and 5G RAN gear to support higher-speed mobile services for smartphone and wireless broadband customers.
A ban on Huawei in the 5G radio network would hold up 5G deployment and force operators to rip out equipment at considerable expense, executives have warned. Telcos would have to remove Huawei's 4G kit and introduce technology from a new 5G vendor to avoid interoperability problems, they say.
But Vodafone is pressing ahead with the use of Huawei as one of its 5G radio suppliers because it now sees little risk of a ban following discussions with the UK's National Cyber Security Council (NCSC) and Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS), according to Scott Petty, the chief technology officer of Vodafone UK.
"We use Huawei in one third of our basestations and we have deployed 5G on top of Huawei 4G basestations," he said during a press conference yesterday. "We have been working really hard with the NCSC and DCMS with security review and think it is very unlikely that Huawei will be banned from radio access.
"If that was to happen we'd need to replace basestations we have already built, which would slow us down a bit and be disappointing for the country," he added. "Instead of being ahead of the rest of Europe on 5G, we'd all slow down."
Vodafone, which also sources RAN gear from Ericsson, switched on its 5G network in seven cities this week, joining rival BT in the UK market for services based on the next-generation technology. Both Three and O2, the country's other mobile network operator, have flagged plans to launch a mobile 5G service by the end of the year.
Of all those companies, Three looks most at risk because it relies solely on Huawei as a 5G radio supplier and is now replacing old Samsung 4G kit with the Chinese vendor's gear.
But Shaun Smith, Three's 5G program director, says a radio ban would be "unusual."
"It would hurt the operators in this country in a very similar way," he told Light Reading earlier this week. "What is worth bearing in mind is that in our topology, our brand-new core is [from] Nokia, which is where all the intelligence is. The dumb radio kit is in the RAN [radio access network] and that was done with the NCSC's oversight."
The UK is carrying out a supply chain review to determine if Huawei will be allowed to feature in operators' 5G networks. A decision was originally expected in May, but the process appears to have been held up by various political developments.
The UK's ruling Conservative Party has yet to pick the country's next prime minister after the resignation of Theresa May last month. Boris Johnson and Jeremy Hunt are the two remaining candidates in that contest.
A Cabinet leak earlier this year suggested that May's government would seek to ban Huawei from the 5G core but allow it to continue selling radio gear to UK operators.
A new prime minister could have different ideas and may be wary of upsetting either China or the US if the UK eventually leaves the European Union without a deal in October. Such a development -- now a distinct possibility -- could put the UK under pressure to find alternative trading partners in a hurry.
Officials in President Donald Trump's administration regard Huawei as a threat because of its perceived links to the Chinese government. Its products, they say, could feasibly include "backdoors" for Chinese government spies.
Huawei has vehemently denied the accusations, while Trump's own position on Huawei has wavered in recent days. In May, the Chinese vendor was included on the US "Entity List" of companies that cannot do business with US organizations. But after a meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping at last week's G20 summit in Osaka, Trump indicated that trade restrictions could be relaxed (though there has been a distinct lack of clarity since then with regards to Huawei's status as a potential customer for US technology firms).
Meanwhile, Meng Wanzhou, Huawei's chief financial officer, remains in Canada awaiting possible extradition to the US to face charges of fraud. She was arrested at Vancouver airport in December and stands accused of covering up Huawei's sale of telecom equipment to Iran.
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- For UK 5G Users, the Only Way Is Huawei
- Why Huawei's Addition to the Entity List Is the Pandora's Box of Telecoms
- Huaweigate Latest: Trump's U-Turn & Weldon's Whoopsie
- Trump Offers Hope to Huawei's US Suppliers
- Huawei Ban Decision in UK 'More Difficult' After US Moves, Says Minister
— Iain Morris, International Editor, Light Reading