BT aims to keep Huawei for fiber until early 2030s

BT is urging the British government to let it retain Huawei in its fixed broadband network until the early 2030s so that it can avoid running up additional costs to replace fiber equipment.

The UK telecom incumbent is working toward compliance with a government rule limiting Huawei products to 35% of an operator's fiber access footprint by 2023. But it will resist any move to ban the supplier this decade as it tries to minimize network disruption and sweat fiber assets it has already deployed.

"Our intention is to ensure that we get the full economic life out of the Huawei FTTP [fiber-to-the-premises] kit that we have deployed, and we think that takes us to 2031, 2032," said Howard Watson, BT's chief technology officer, on the sidelines of this year's Broadband World Forum in Amsterdam. "We've been talking with government about that timescale."

The Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) has recently been in consultation with UK operators about Huawei's role in fiber broadband and is expected to publish guidance in a forthcoming Designated Vendor Direction (DVD) paper.

Operators must limit Huawei to 35% of their 5G networks by 2023 and have removed it entirely by the end of 2027.

Last year, the government stopped short of imposing a similar ban on Huawei in the fixed-line sector because it was concerned about the lack of alternatives.

In a paper released in July 2020, the UK's National Cyber Security Centre (NCSC) noted "there is only one other scale vendor in this sector," an apparent reference to Finland's Nokia. The NCSC went on to say that "over-reliance on any vendor is bad from a security and resiliency point of view."

At the time, BT's Openreach networks business was already using products from both Huawei and Nokia to power its full-fiber deployment. It has subsequently begun rolling out fiber equipment supplied by Adtran, a North American firm with a small share of the global market but a strong presence in some European countries.

"It has already impacted the fixed side," said Watson about government restrictions on Huawei. "In 2023, on households being built and in progress, we need to be at no more than 35% and the Openreach team are absolutely working toward that. And on the back of that we are actually doing a lot of Nokia build at the moment and we've introduced Adtran as a third vendor there, and so we're making good progress."

While BT has not indicated the percentage of premises served by each separate vendor, the DCMS put Huawei's share of the UK full-fiber market at 44% in December, against just 35% in mobile access.

Stripping out would be costly and disruptive. BT expects to invest about £12 billion ($16.4 billion) on extending fiber to roughly 25 million UK premises by 2026. It has now covered about 5 million homes with the high-speed technology, relying heavily on Huawei so far.

The operator previously estimated that stripping Huawei out of its mobile network and complying with a 35% fiber cap would cost about £500 million ($682 million).

UK authorities have taken the view that Huawei's Chinese identity makes it a threat to national security. They have argued that China's government could rely on "backdoors" in Huawei products to spy on other countries or even bring down critical infrastructure.

Experts reckon fixed-line networks may be less vulnerable to any security threats than mobile ones. "In general, mobile appears to be less secure than fiber-based technology," Julie Kunstler, a principal analyst with Omdia, recently told Light Reading.

The security threat in mobile could be heightened by the role 5G might play in a future "Internet of Things" comprising billions of everyday objects.

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— Iain Morris, International Editor, Light Reading

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