Huawei removal could come at a huge cost to UK 5G ambitions

2 min read Networks & Network Services
Vodafone executives met with journalists today to address several key industry issues, namely the pending outcome of the Supply Chain Review which could not only determine whether Huawei will play a part in the UK's national infrastructure going forwards but also how competitive the UK will be if forced to rip and replace technology one of the leading global networking vendors.

Huawei has been subjected to widespread international suspicion recently as the US moved to ban the company installing kit in the home territories. Two major concerns surround the debate in the UK, the first is cyber security. Does any foreign power have the ability to access elements of our networks to obtain data or even control? The second question is can a foreign state access any part of the home network and shut that network down entirely?

CTO of Vodafone, Scott Petty, stated "In the case of the radio access network the risk is very low, the reason for that is if you were trying to issue a cyber attack to gather information a radio base station is a pretty weak place to attack. The reason for that is there is 18,000 of them, and we move around the network pretty consistently, and the amount of information you can get from each one is very small. Secondly, the majority of data of the internet is encrypted and it wouldn't be worth attacking, you would be better off trying to get into the transport, or core network."

At a base station level, the risk of a breach is incredibly low, to take down the network you would have to attack all 18,000 Vodafone base stations at once. The NCSE (National Cyber Security Centre - part of GCHQ) is in agreement with Vodafone, the pair have been assessing the risk for some time.

Added to that, there is Huawei kit in only 32% of Vodafone's base stations across the country. Across the base station and transport network (with gateways) Vodafone currently deploys six vendors, including Huawei, as part of a multi-layered approach to security. The idea being, in the unlikely event of a breach it would only be one vendors kit and network elements exposed.

Petty said "It would be incredibly difficult for any one vendor to penetrate and take down the network, we made the multi-vendor decision five years ago. That was a difficult decision to make as Huawei are actually one of the leading vendors in this space, they have very good products. We felt based on the risk profile in the UK, and the critical national infrastructure we support we would be better off making this decision."

When it comes to the roll out of 5G Petty says the UK is currently ahead of the pack (in Europe) and Huawei has been a key vendor in getting the UK into a position where we have a chance to gain an economic advantage.

The impact of being forced to remove Huawei from the entire network infrastructure, as mandated following the Supply Chain Review?

Petty says, "The impact would be significant, the first releases of 5G are running in non-stand alone mode, which means the first 5G standards require 4G to be in place to create a 5G network. If we were forced to remove Huawei from the network we would have to go to the 32% (the number of base stations with Huawei kit) of our base stations and replace that technology with another vendor and then deploy 5G over the top of that. The cost of doing so would run into the hundreds of millions and would dramatically impact our 5G business case, we would have to slow down the deployment of 5G significantly."

Petty continued, "We think that is the wrong thing to do as it is an area of the network which has very low risk and low impact. We think we should be able to work with Huawei in radio network technology and then make alternative decisions in the core network."

Helen Lamprell, General Counsel and External Affairs Director at Vodafone commented on the impact of this outcome, "It will have huge impact to the government's ambitions to be leaders in 5G, it will come at a huge cost to the industry, and for what? If there is evidence we would love to see it but so far we haven't seen any."