Vodafone Says Banning Huawei Would Cost UK Its 5G Lead

Vodafone has said it is backing calls by Chinese telecoms equipment giant Huawei for a pan-European security regime that would carry out security checks on all major industry players, and not just Huawei.

At a roundtable discussion in London this week, the operator also gave an update on its 5G plans and said that completely banning Huawei from participating in the UK’s 5G rollout would mean “hundreds of millions” in extra expenses for the company and would likely also cost the UK its leadership in 5G readiness.

Last month, speaking at the Mobile World Congress (MWC) in Barcelona, Vodafone chief executive Nick Read said banning Huawei in Europe would be “hugely disruptive” to national infrastructure and would delay 5G in Europe for “likely two years”.

Huawei currently maintains a security centre in the UK where British national security officials can review its equipment for any possible issues, and the company has called for a similar centre operating on a Europe-wide scale.

Europe-wide security regime

Vodafone said at Thursday’s event that it was “pushing” for such a centre, which would inspect gear from companies including Cisco, Ericsson and Nokia.

Huawei opened a security centre similar to its UK facility in Brussels this week, with  senior Huawei executives meeting with EU officials to discuss a set of Europe-wide rules that would cover telecoms network security.

But implementing such a facility across multiple vendors would be “tricky”, according to Vodafone chief technology officer Scott Petty, because it would require all vendors to feel comfortable supplying their sensitive source code to a common environment, something they would be “incredibly nervous” about doing.

The GSM Association recently advanced proposals for industry tests for 5G equipment, but Ericsson has resisted the idea, saying such a programme would slow 5G’s development and drive up costs.

Supply chain caution

The UK government is currently preparing a Supply Chain Review and is examining whether Huawei should be allowed to participate in the UK’s 5G networks, amidst security concerns and US pressure for a complete ban.

UK officials were said this week to be considering new rules that would bar operators from using Huawei in more than 50 percent of their networks.

Huawei has always maintained it poses no security threat, and in recent months has begun fighting back in public against US allegations, which it calls baseless.

The company on Thursday sued the US government for a ban instituted last year that prevents US government agencies from using Huawei gear or working with contractors who do so.

Vodafone’s Petty said the company doesn’t use Huawei in sensitive parts of its network, but that about one-third of its 4G base stations are Huawei, amounting to about 6,000 of its 18,000 mobile sites in the UK.

The first release of 5G requires compatible 4G gear, meaning if Vodafone were prevented from upgrading existing 4G Huawei sites to 5G, it would instead be required to rip out those 4G base stations and replace them with gear from another vendor in order to upgrade to 5G, at a cost of “hundreds of millions” and a significant delay, Petty said.

Technology lead

Petty said the radio network where Huawei gear is deployed is low-risk, in part because hacking it would not give access to the rest of the network.

Vodafone ruled out using Huawei in its core or optical networks because the combination of transport and radio technologies from a single vendor would mean too large of a threat vector, Petty said.

The company also uses gear from Ciena, Nokia and Juniper, with its core network being deployed in four UK locations through a partnership with Cisco.

Vodafone’s supplier strategy resembles that of BT, which also has a long-standing policy of excluding Huawei from its core, optical and edge networks while using it as a radio supplier.

But Vodafone general counsel Helen Lamprell emphasised that the company has never found evidence of security risks, such as backdoors, in Huawei products,

In addition, using Huawei would be advantageous since it has technical leadership on 5G, Petty said, saying it is “a long way in front”, followed by Ericsson in second-place and Nokia in third.

Matthew Broersma

Matt Broersma is a long standing tech freelance, who has worked for Ziff-Davis, ZDnet and other leading publications

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