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UK telcos ask for clarity sooner rather than later over Huawei – report

The UK’s largest mobile operators are reported getting tired of Government indecision, drafting a letter to Cabinet Secretary Mark Sedwill requesting clarification on the situation.

The BBC is claiming to have seen a draft in which a decision has been urged. As it stands, the MNOs are in the telco version of purgatory. The 5G world is fast approaching, but with the Government getting comfortable on the fence, no-one will want to make any investment decisions, a wrong-turn could prove to be very expensive.

In response to the rumours of such a letter, the UK Government has asked for patience.

“The security and resilience of the UK’s telecoms networks is of paramount importance,” said a Government spokesperson. “We have robust procedures in place to manage risks to national security and are committed to the highest possible security standards.

“The Telecoms Supply Chain Review will be announced in due course. We have been clear throughout the process that all network operators will need to comply with the Government’s decision.”

What is worth noting is the BBC coverage perhaps reflects a sense of urgency which is not felt by the telcos. Having reached out to contacts in the industry, the tone of urgency which has been reflected in the article does not seem to represent the climate for the telcos. It is a sensitive issue, and the message seems to be clear; we’re not going to force the hand of the Government into a speedy decision.

“We do not comment on draft documents,” said a Vodafone spokesperson. “We would ask for any decision regarding the future use of Huawei equipment in the UK not to be rushed but based on all the facts.”

“We are in regular contact with UK Government around this topic, and continue to discuss the impact of possible regulation on UK telecoms networks,” said a BT spokesperson.

That said, a decision needs to come sooner rather than later.

Currently the MNOs are in a bit of a bind. Money needs to be spent and networks need to be built to ensure connectivity in the UK meets the standards demanded of the digital economy. However, as there are so few vendors in this segment of the industry clarification on the Huawei situation is critically important.

Without Huawei, the threat of decreased competition might lead to less attractive commercial terms, which could lead to increased prices for the consumer as telcos drive ROI. Telcos will want Huawei to be included in these talks. Right now, no decisions can be made. If the telcos go forward without Huawei, they might be missing a trick, but if they do and the Supply Chain Review bans the firm, the cost of ‘rip and replace’ would be painful. The telcos are just sitting and waiting.

The outcome of the review has already been potentially leaked, suggesting Huawei would be given the greenlight. This leak from the National Security Council led to former-Defence Secretary Gavin Williamson being sacked, though this is not to say the leak is accurate. Last week, the UK hosted US President Donald Trump, and while there was no eureka moment, who knows what was discussed behind closed doors.

The US is sticking by its anti-Huawei position and has even suggested with-holding access to security data from countries who are exposed to the vendor.

That said, there might have been no material conversations held on this topic over the course of the visit. Theresa May is no-longer the political leader of the UK and Trump might have thought it nothing more than a waste of hot-air. This is perhaps one of the biggest issues which the country is facing at the moment; who knows who is going to be leading the Government over the next couple of months.

The Tory party members are going to be choosing the next leader of the Conservative party over the next few weeks, and the tone of 10 Downing Street might change. May seemed to have a much more internationalist approach to politics, though certain candidates are much cosier with the White House. Bookies favourite Boris Johnson is certainly chummier than most with the US President, though others will be in deeper conversations with US delegations than some. This could have an impact on the relationship with China in the long-term, and subsequently, on any decisions made surrounding Huawei.

The consequence of this decision is not only impacting the future of networks in the UK, but also the past. Yes, telcos are reluctant to spend now, but any decision banning Huawei would result in ‘rip and replace’ programmes. Vodafone has already stated it has Huawei equipment on 38% of base stations around the UK and having to replace RAN equipment would set its 5G ambitions back two years. Telcos would also have to consider 4G investments made over the last couple of years.

Although the other telcos have not been as forth-coming with their exposure to Huawei equipment, it would be a fair assumption the vendor’s kit is scattered throughout the network. This is not just a challenge for Vodafone or EE alone, this is an industry-wide worry.

This is not to say the UK would turn into a massive not-spot, but it would have severe implications on the connectivity ambitions of the country.

Some might have expected a decision from the Supply Chain Review in May, but we are still waiting. External factors have perhaps taken priority, the next Prime Minister and the Trump State Visit for example, but that will come as little consolidation for the telcos who are prepping investments.

The UK should not rush this decision, but the longer it leaves the telcos in purgatory the more the country slips behind in the 5G race. Uncertainty is the enemy of telcos and who knows which way this decision will go.

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