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Supply Chain Review offers clarity and new headaches for UK MNOs

Any decision is better than the purgatory of uncertainty which the telcos have been sitting in for months, but the Supply Chain Review offers a whole new wave of headaches.

There are still grey areas to consider, but the Department of Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) has offered a foundation for telcos to build on. Some might be slightly disappointed by the decision, certainly some more than others, but any decision was better than playing the waiting game; action can now be taken.

Huawei’s contributions to a UK MNOs 5G radio inventory can not exceed a 35% share. However, another interesting element to consider is that Huawei radio equipment cannot carry more than 35% of internet traffic either. This presents new questions as to how networks are built. Huawei technology might not be able to be clustered in certain urbanised areas, which has been the trend in the past.

But new questions are arising for each of the players in the market.

Is Huawei to lose leadership position in the UK market?

Speaking during a call to the press, Huawei VP Jeremy Thompson said capturing 35% market share in any nation would be a job well done for Huawei, though this is assuming customer relationships are rebalanced.

For Huawei to capture 35% market share, it would have to be a major supplier to all the UK MNOs and for all the MNOs to use every inch of the 35% network share. This is a situation which is very unlikely to happen.

EE and Vodafone are over the 35% limit for Huawei equipment in their 4G networks, therefore these relationships will have to be structured down. Three named Huawei as its sole 5G RAN supplier, Samsung provided 4G RAN equipment, therefore it will definitely lose business here as well. There is room for growth at O2, but this is a telco it has not had notable success in recent years.

Huawei’s RAN equipment makes up less than 1% of O2 radio inventory, only present due to trials, and this is unlikely to change.

As Thompson pointed out, Huawei’s market share in the UK when the Supply Chain Review was initially launched was 35%. Its business with its three main customers will have to decrease for them to meet the targets in three years, and it is unlikely to increase its commercial activity with O2.

Huawei could very feasibly lose its RAN leadership position due to bureaucracy as opposed to head-to-head competition.

Three has the biggest headache of all

Three is not in a healthy position but fortunately its 5G deployment is not that advanced.

“We note the government’s announcement and are reviewing the detail,” said Three UK CEO Dave Dyson.

Last year, Three began stripping Samsung 4G equipment out of its network to ensure interoperability with its sole 5G RAN supplier, Huawei. Fortunately, Three has not been accelerating its deployment plans as quickly as EE or Vodafone, therefore does not have as much work to undo. Three will not have to start again from the beginning, but it will have to redevelop the strategy.

As a city-centric telco, the Huawei decision made sense as the Chinese vendor arguably has the best equipment for the situation. Investing so significantly in Huawei might have been a bold decision two years ago, but it is now looking like nothing short of a disaster.

Business as usual for O2

“Huawei kit makes up less than 1% of our owned network infrastructure,” said an O2 spokesperson. “We will continue to develop our 5G network with minimum disruption with our primary vendors Nokia and Ericsson.

“Whilst we agree with the government that diversity of supply is the best way to serve customers, careful consideration must be given to the distinction between ‘core’ and ‘non-core’ as 5G networks develop and evolve. We’ll now take time to review the full report.”

There are roughly a dozen Huawei radios in the O2 network, a legacy of trials during yesteryear prior to supplier decisions being made. O2 has said it will work exclusively with Ericsson and Nokia in the past, painting a gloomy picture for Huawei, though there is always room for change.

Earlier this month, O2 announced it would be aiming to integrate OpenRAN alternatives into some areas of the network. This was slightly unexpected news and would have altered deployment plans in pursuit of commercial efficiencies. This demonstrates that the plans are not 100% set in stone.

Huawei’s commercial relationship with O2 can only get better, and if it does want to maintain its RAN leadership position in the UK, it will have to figure out how to break into this business. Ultimately, very little changes for O2 unless it wants to change itself.

EE and Vodafone have some thinking to do

“While Vodafone UK does not use Huawei in its core – the intelligent part of the network – it will now analyse the potential impact of today’s decision on the non-core elements of its network (masts and transmission links),” a Vodafone statement reads.

“Vodafone UK uses a mix of Huawei, Ericsson and Nokia equipment for its 4G and 5G masts, and we continue to believe that the use of a wide range of equipment vendors is the best way to safeguard the delivery of services to all mobile customers.”

For its 4G network, Ericsson supplies 50% of the radio inventory, Nokia 12% and Huawei 38%. Vodafone CTO Scott Petty has previously suggested plans to phase out Nokia, though that position might have to be reconsidered. Vodafone will have to scale down its Huawei relationship moving forward into 5G and find a suitable replacement.

Interestingly enough, Vodafone has also launched its own OpenRAN initiative, though whether this technology is resilient for a straight swap remains to be seen. It will at some point, but Vodafone will not want to wait until that point.

EE is in a similar position.

“This decision is an important clarification for the industry,” said a spokesperson from EE parent company BT.

“The security of our networks is an absolute priority for BT, and we already have a long-standing principle not to use Huawei in our core networks. While we have prepared for a range of scenarios, we need to further analyse the details and implications of this decision before taking a view of potential costs and impacts.”

EE currently works with Huawei and Nokia. The share of Huawei radio inventory exceeds the 35% limit, though it has time and options to renegotiate over the next three years. It is a bit of a headache for the team, but not the end of the world.

The difficulty which EE faces is the current structure of the network. Huawei provides the radio equipment for the urbanised areas, while Nokia is focused on rural. The internet traffic crossing Huawei radios on EE’s network will dramatically exceed the 35% restriction.

Are Nokia and Ericsson in a stronger negotiating position?

For cut-throat sales opportunists, this is a very interesting position for Ericsson and Nokia. Unless OpenRAN makes significant progress in the short-term future, or Samsung starts swinging punches, 65% network share is effectively a straight shootout between the two.

As Heavy Reading Analyst Gabriel Brown has pointed out, the limits are only directed towards 5G access and is therefore more manageable, but the knowledge of restrictions will always be in the mind of some salespeople; this adds weight to the vendor negotiating position.

Ericsson and Nokia will of course never acknowledge this position, but these are commercial organisations who have seen profits eroded over the last few years. And the guys sitting at the negotiating table are salespeople who like getting big bonus checks.

Could this be the catalyst for OpenRAN and Samsung?

When there are challenges for some, opportunities will always be presented for others. Ericsson and Nokia are certainly set to prosper thanks to Huawei limitations, though the same could be said for the OpenRAN ecosystem and Samsung.

OpenRAN has been touted by US politicians as a potential alternative to Huawei equipment, Senator Mark Warner is proposing a $1 billion fund for the ecosystem, though needs might accelerate demand.

With Huawei’s RAN equipment under restriction, there is certainly a dent in the competitive landscape. It could have been a lot worse, but it will have an impact. The question is how much enthusiasm will be placed in the OpenRAN movement to compensate and create the competitive environment so many are hoping will emerge.

Vodafone and O2 have already dipped their toes into the OpenRAN waters, with commercial deployments to accelerate over the next 2-3 years, though the Huawei saga could make this seem like an attractive alternative to more. The UK Government has seemingly not banned Huawei completely for competition fears, therefore it might be tempted to invest in some developing ecosystems, as would EE and Three.

Samsung is a different story.

This is a vendor which has credibility in the RAN market but has never made a significant impact on the UK telco industry. It did have a healthy relationship with Three prior to the Huawei shift, but activities otherwise have been limited in this segment. Huawei limitations could present an opportunity.

At Three, it would make sense to head back to tried-and-tested waters, while other telcos might consider the Korean vendor to ensure increased diversity in the supply chain. If reliance and variety is the goal, few would want to put more eggs in the Ericsson or Nokia baskets.

With relationships in Korea with KT and SK Telecom, as well as Verizon in the US, Samsung has credibility. The Huawei woes might just be enough to tip the scale in this vendors favour, if it start to throw the right punches.

End of the UK road for ZTE?

The 35% limit is not a restriction for a single supplier, but for any suppliers who are deemed ‘high-risk’. Huawei and ZTE both fall into this bracket therefore it is likely to present a question to the telcos; do we work with Huawei or ZTE? There is room for a slice for each, but this is highly unlikely to happen, especially since the review concludes there is no way to mitigate the risk posed by ZTE.

When it comes to the global market share of RAN, ZTE is a company which falls into the ‘also ran’ category. It has experienced success in Africa and Asia, and of course in China, but exposure in Western Europe has been incredibly limited. In the UK, there is very little evidence of success, though Jersey Telecom named the vendor as its sole 5G RAN supplier.

Jersey Telecom will have to have a complete rethink of its strategy, like Three, but the writing seems to be on the wall for ZTE. This could be the end of the vendor as a player in the UK market.

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