Vodafone warns of ‘massive 5G disruption’ if Huawei is banned

08 March 2019 | Alan Burkitt-Gray

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Excluding Huawei from the UK’s 5G infrastructure would be “massively disruptive” to Vodafone UK’s plans to move on to the next generation of mobile technology.

Helen Lamprell, the UK branch’s general counsel and external affairs director, said that if an embargo on Huawei left only two vendors for main parts of 5G infrastructure – Ericsson and Nokia – that would remove “their incentive to improve”.

But, in a briefing to media, Lamprell (pictured) said Vodafone was worried about Huawei getting the sort of denial order that rival Chinese vendor ZTE experienced in 2018 – when it was banned for a period from using chips and software licensed from US suppliers. “A worldwide denial order would be disruptive,” she said.

Lamprell and colleagues from Vodafone UK were briefing media about 5G issues in advance of a meeting with the UK government about spectrum.

Scott Petty, CTO of Vodafone UK, said that the disruption would be particularly severe as the company already uses some Huawei technology in part of its 4G radio access network (RAN) and it currently plans to upgrade those base stations to 5G using the same vendor.

Vodafone applies a risk assessment to using different vendors in different parts of the network, said Petty. The company’s 18,000 4G base stations are split between Huawei, with 32%, Nokia, with 12%, and Ericsson, with the rest – though the Nokia kit is about to be replaced with Ericsson, he said. Huawei is “low risk” in the RAN, he said.  

The Chinese vendor is rated as medium risk in the fibre backhaul network. “We decided not to use Chinese technology.” Vodafone UK uses Nokia and Ciena, said Petty, with Juniper and Cisco to provide the security.

Vodafone decided to exclude Huawei five years ago, he added. “It was a difficult decision because Huawei is one of the leading vendors in the transport sector.”

Risk is “by far the greatest” in the core network, which is “concentrated in four locations”, he said. “If you get into the core, you have control of the entire network.” He cited the temporary shutdown of Telefónica’s UK network in December 2018 because of an Ericsson software fault. “We are not using Huawei in the core network,” said Petty. “We have a Cisco core network with Ericsson nodes.”

Vodafone is one of the customers of the Huawei Cyber Security Evaluation Centre (HCSEC) at Banbury in the UK. This is paid for by Huawei but staffed by cyber specialists security-vetted by a division of the UK’s Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ), part of the country’s intelligence services.

“We’d prefer to do it at the European level,” said Petty. Vodafone is working with the industry, he hinted, to have a pan-European evaluation centre.

“Huawei is subject to a lot of scrutiny, which is great,” noted Lamprell, but she wondered about scrutiny for the other vendors that the industry uses.

Meanwhile Petty reinforced the point that if Vodafone were “forced to remove Huawei from the network”, and replace it with other vendors’ kit, “the cost would be hundreds of millions of pounds and we would have to slow down 5G as we’d have to refresh the 4G network first”.

Lamprell added: “Nothing we’ve seen suggests that’s any proper response.”

Vodafone is to launch 5G in 19 UK cities this year, said Petty. “The UK is really ahead in 5G coverage. Being first is really important. If we had to replace the Huawei equipment it would really slow us down.”

The company has already announced 5G in Birmingham, Bristol, Cardiff, Glasgow, Liverpool, London and Manchester, and it will now be launching it in 12 more places this year, including its original headquarter town of Newbury, now its technology headquarters.

Huawei is also well ahead of others in the software for 5G, said Petty, who is expecting general availability between “May and the end of July”. “Huawei is a long, long way ahead, then Ericsson, and then Nokia.”

Capacity asked him how closely he works with other parts of Vodafone on security questions. “Each country does its own risk assessment,” he said. “In the UK we take a more conservative position, because of the critical national infrastructure we operate. Other European countries could take a different view.” But has any CTO in the group ever discovered a security issue with Huawei, Capacity asked. None, said Petty.