U.K. sets timeline for Huawei ban, embraces open RAN

The U.K. government on Monday set out a roadmap for removing Huawei equipment from 5G networks and outlined a new strategy to diversify the country’s telecom supply chain.

The government is now advising operators to stop installing any Huawei equipment in 5G networks by the end of September 2021 as part of a Telecommunications (Security) Bill. The U.K. this past summer had already announced a ban on Huawei gear.

“We are taking bold steps to implement one of the toughest telecoms security regimes in the world,” said Oliver Dowden, U.K. Government Digital Secretary in the foreword to the '5G supply chain diversification strategy.' A central part of that is combating high-risk vendors, and I have set out an unambiguous timetable for the complete removal of Huawei equipment from our 5G networks no later than 2027.”

Of course, taking this action means the U.K. will become increasingly reliant on Finland’s Nokia and Sweden’s Ericsson, and the government says that dependence on just two suppliers represents a serious risk to the resilience of the U.K.’s critical national infrastructure. To that end, its aim is to foster competition and growth to include many more suppliers.

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The government says it will do what it can to support incumbent suppliers, but it wants to attract new suppliers to the U.K. market. It’s already engaged extensively with a range of suppliers, including brands such as Samsung, Fujitsu and NEC, as well as new and emerging vendors, such as Parallel Wireless and Mavenir.

The diversification strategy will see the government spend an initial $334 million to kick off work to create a more diverse and competitive telecom supply market.

It was always a bit odd that the U.K. declared Huawei a security risk and was still allowing new installations until 2027, noted analyst Roger Entner of Recon Analytics. “I think they reassessed the risk and realized that if they do this, Huawei will be too embedded. They will never get them out. It’s not realistic to basically say OK, now we have to rip it all out.”

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New alternatives have appeared as well, with open RAN being an avenue that opens up the market and provides access to a lot more suppliers. It also follows the road of a more prescriptive government policy, he said. In the U.S., the government has been very technology agnostic, going back to the days when Europe mandated GSM and the U.S. let licensed operators use the technology of their choice, whether that be GSM, CDMA or something else.   

Licenses in the U.K. are tied to technologies, so in certain spectrum bands, they can only use 5G. “It’s a much more interventionist policy,” across the board. As for the U.K.’s new strategy: “It’s the right bet and it’s the right timing,” Entner said.