A UK decision about Huawei’s role in 5G networks is “a more difficult judgement 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.
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.”
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.