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People walk past a sign board of Huawei at CES (Consumer Electronics Show) Asia 2018 in Shanghai

Huawei 5G infrastructure will take five years to remove, operators say

Image credit: REUTERS

Vodafone and BT executives have warned MPs that they require a minimum of five years to remove Huawei equipment from their telecommunications networks, in order to prevent serious disruption to users.

In January, the UK government gave Shenzhen-based Huawei the green light to provide non-core equipment for the UK’s 5G network, with a market cap of 35 per cent. However, fresh US sanctions placed against the company and a backbench Tory rebellion motivated by concerns that Huawei is a national security threat have forced the government to reconsider Huawei’s position.

Huawei has repeatedly denied claims that it acts as an earpiece for the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and has asserted that it is a wholly independent company which follows the laws of the countries in which it operates.

The Government is expected to U-turn on January’s decision and ban Huawei from the UK’s telecommunications networks entirely, potentially ordering network operators to remove all Huawei equipment by 2023.

In an appearance before the Commons Science and Technology Select Committee, representatives from Vodafone and BT – which both use significant quantities of Huawei equipment in their 5G and legacy networks – warned against forcing operators to remove and replace Huawei equipment with such a tight timescale.

Both Vodafone and BT representatives agreed that a minimum period of five years, or ideally seven years, would be realistic.

Andrea Dona, head of networks for Vodafone UK, said that a total ban on Huawei would mean that investment currently assigned to its 5G rollout would need to be redirected towards replacing old Huawei equipment at a cost in the “low single-figure billions”.

He warned that being forced to remove Huawei equipment by the 2023 deadline would “undermine the resilience of the network” and that a realistic timeframe would be required to minimise the impact on customers: “A five-year transition plan would be the minimum,” Dona told MPs.

Both Dona and BT’s representative, CTO Howard Watson, warned that being given insufficient time to make these changes would mean many customers suffering signal blackouts, sometimes for multiple days.

“To take the whole network out would require multiple sites to be switched off at the same time for at least a day, sometimes for two days,” said Watson. “Take London; London is mainly served through equipment on top of rooftops. We need to close the streets, bring cranes in, put new equipment on top of rooftops, replace it, put the old equipment back down on the street, open the street again. That is logistically not practical in the timeframe that has been discussed.”

MPs questioned the representatives about the dwindling competition in the telecommunications equipment sector. There are just now three major providers of 5G equipment: Huawei, Sweden’s Ericsson, and Finland’s Nokia.

Dona said that government efforts would be welcome in encouraging competition: “If we let market forces take their course it could take a very long time [for companies to compete]. However, with a concerted effort with government to fund R&D, to pilot and facilitate the deployment, to stimulate the entry of these new players, and support their scalability, those timescales could be reduced.”

MPs expressed interest in the possibility of South Korean electronics giant Samsung competing in the 5G market; Samsung has a comparatively small presence in UK mobile networks. Samsung VP Woojune Kim said that Samsung could “definitely” supply a new standalone 5G network to UK operators, although there are obstacles preventing it from competing.

But he said that backwards-facing investment in legacy (2G, 3G, and 4G) technology would be necessary for Samsung to compete as a 5G vendor. While 5G equipment from Samsung could be overlaid over other vendors’ 4G equipment – bypassing the need for vendor-neutral OpenRAN systems – operators are concerned that this would deteriorate user experience.

Kim told MPs that Huawei is an aggressive competitor which undercuts the market in a way that should not be sustainable for any business, although he stopped short of accusing Huawei of receiving favourable treatment from the CCP.

“We have frequently seen bids which do not seem to make sense in the pricing. If they were a company that were beholden to shareholders and had to make a profit, [they could not] offer that sort of bid,” Kim said. “If you look at a product everyone can guess how much it will cost in raw materials and based on that, we frequently see bids that do not make sense. You could say that the company just takes a long-term view […] it is open to interpretation how that is possible.”

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