Huawei, a China-based telecom giant which recently overtook Apple to become the second largest manufacturer of smartphones in the world, has had to handle a lot of heat in the past few months over security risk allegations.
These allegations have raised the question of whether Huawei should continue to be a part of the launch of 5G networks in the United Kingdom.
Telecom operators in the UK, who have been using Huawei equipment for the past decade and have also used the same for the foundation infrastructure of 5G networks now linger in uncertainty. These operators who are looking to launch 5G by the end of this year, now wait with bated breath for the Supply Chain Review ruling, expected around late March or early April.
This review which is aimed to ensure the security of the supply chains used by the operators is expected to decide the future on Huawei’s role in the UK.
While Huawei has denied that it poses a security risk to the UK or any other country for that matter, the telecom operators fear that the increasing political pressure will result in a technological setback of at least two years and will also narrow down the supplier options.
Operators have preferred Huawei for the quality of their products and also the price at which they come.
“They’ve two unique advantages,” says one technology chief. “They have significantly more engineers working on R&D than other suppliers, and they are prepared to innovate for a specific customer.”
The government-operator briefings held so far have had a recurring theme- There certainly is a need to keep Huawei out of the most sensitive and confidential part of the 5G networks but a complete ban on its use will result in the operators incurring heavy losses, and the UK will not see a launch of 5G anytime soon.
While Huawei does face stiff competition from other European companies like Nokia and Ericsson, another telecoms operator says “they are seen universally as being well ahead of European vendors.”
The preferential treatment of Huawei by the operators over the past few years has put immense pressure on its competitors to provide cost-effective quality products to sustain in the market.
While this poses as a sweet dilemma to the operators, the security concern has made them reach out for advice from the National Cyber Security Centre (NCSC).
“Their advice was if you want to minimize the risk you shouldn’t have everything end to end owned by one vendor,” explained one company.
The scenario that the ruling imposes a complete ban of Huawei products would cause severe, adverse ripples on the existing 4G networks as well, where Huawei had a major role in its establishment.
“You can’t do 5G without 4G – a lot of people don’t understand that,” says one operator. “You’re talking then about a massive replacement program and a massive delay to 5G for all operators. Plus a massive increase in costs as well.”
“We would have to go and replace all of the Huawei 4G kits we have and deploy a different vendor’s equipment.” says another. “We’d have to fully test that different vendor’s 5G before we started that process, so that would take another 12 to 18 months.”
The current trend points towards Europe as the spearhead in the conception of the next generation networks among the other top nations like the US and the operators want it to stay that way but not at the cost of the nation’s security, which has been and will always be their priority.