Vodafone: Daft Huawei comms gear ban will cripple UK – and cost punters loads

Big Red details 5G plans

Vodafone played down 5G expectations as it elaborated on its own 5G plans today - and warned that interference over Huawei by Government would retard the UK’s mobile network leadership.

Vodafone said the Huawei ban would require it to rip out a third of its 4G network, costing a huge amount of money, and delaying roll out by years.

The giant operator said it had minimised the risk posed by Chinese operators by buying from a range of providers, and it had not seen evidence justifying interference. Vodafone estimated that 32 per cent of its own 4G base stations are made by Huawei.

"This would cost hundreds of millions and slow down deployment of 5G," Scott Petty, Voda's CTO, told us. For once, the UK is in a "leadership position" to interest the latest generation of mobile networking technology, and the company fears the UK would lose this. Petty said that when it came to technology, Huawei "is a long way in front" – with Ericsson in second place and Nokia third.

Nevertheless, the industry awaits the outcome of the Ministry of Fun's Future Telecoms Infrastructure Review, which is under pressure to assess (PDF) the extent of Chinese made equipment in the supply chain.

The anglophone "Five Eyes" nations, whose intelligence services work closely together, are the keenest on inhibiting the spreading of Huawei equipment in their national infrastructure. This reached a crescendo in the new year. The US has been lobbying Europeans to shun the Chinese giant. But Vodafone, as with other big operators, has become increasingly resentful about the interference in private contracts. If you've got proof, it's put up or shut up time, Vodafone said today.

'Evidence'

"No one has put any evidence on the table," Vodafone's director of corporate affairs Helen Lamprell told journalists at a briefing today.

That echoes the view of others – including the EU's Communications Network, Content and Technology directorate, and Germany's cybersecurity "kaiser", Arne Schönbohm.

Voda's Petty said his firm had minimised the risk from Chinese vendors by limiting Huawei to the RAN, or radio access network. It isn't allowed in the transport network RedString, or Vodafone's core network. IPSec gateways ensure that traffic is partitioned from the fibre backbone.

If you wanted to hack Vodafone, you wouldn't bother with the basestations, chief techie Petty mused. Nokia accounts for about 12 per cent of base stations, but is being superseded by Huawei and Ericsson kit. Nokia and Ciena are the main providers for the RedStream network, and Vodafone uses several more for its core networking where billing and customer data is held. Juniper and Cisco provide the routers.

The company said the source-code sharing agreement between GCHQ and Huawei, the "Cell" or the Huawei Cyber Security Evaluation Centre (HCSEC) is a unique model: so far Huawei is the only vendor to allow the spooks to rummage through their code.

Petty said it could usefully be extended to other operators as a standard – although getting the leading competitors to submit their code to one facility might be problematic.

"We're pushing for a HCSEC but for the entire industry," said Petty.

Rollout

Vodafone will launch 5G in 19 locations in the UK by the end of the year, it announced today. In addition to the seven areas already announced, Birkenhead, Blackpool, Portsmouth, Plymouth, Reading, Southampton, Stoke-on-Trent, Warrington and Wolverhampton will also receive 5G signals… at least somewhere.

Petty reminded the press that the second half of 5G (including the IoT parts) has yet to be nailed down, and even for the part that has been nailed down, "the software isn't ready". Handsets should ship in volume by the summer, he has estimated. Vodafone said that thanks to the installation of M-MIMO in 4G base stations, upgrading a site to 5G should mean a flick of switch when it finally is ready to ship. The main benefits are a capacity increase, he told The Reg.

That we know. 5G handsets evident at MWC last week were not really functioning as 5G handsets. Most weren't even functioning at all. ®

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