Mobile & Telecoms

5G in the UK: When politics and technology collide

Boris Johnson has spoken. Huawei can help build the UK’s 5G infrastructure, but only on a ‘limited’ basis. The Chinese vendor will continue to build mobile radio infrastructure for UK operators (but only allowed to make up 35% of its inventory), but will be kept away from the core – the so called ‘brains’ of the network.

I’m being very simplistic in my descriptions – as has the commentary across the UK national media. Let’s face it, being a telecoms PR man, I have kept track of this story out for personal interest as much as for clients. I know a little more about the machinations of mobile networks and the complexity surrounding 5G network buildout than the next person. Thankfully, I’m surrounded by clients and expert friends in the industry that know even more and can help me fill in the gaps.

After speaking with one or two of them, I now realise that what Boris Johnson is proposing as a solution raises as many questions as it answers. It’s almost as if he considered the position of the UK government in the wake of Brexit, acknowledged the need to maintain positive relations with the Americans and the Chinese with possible trade deals in mind, reached a compromise that he felt both sides could begrudgingly entertain, and then asked his advisors to come up with the detail.

Take, for example, the intention to restrict to 35% the amount of RAN equipment operators can buy from Huawei. What isn’t being as widely reported is this also includes a restriction on the amount of traffic that can be carried across its infrastructure – also limited to 35%. This immediately begs the question of how this will be adequately policed, and what will the penalties be for non-compliance? The industry experts I have spoken to believe that operators will likely need to be self-policing. Otherwise regulators would need to insist upon getting access to the traffic diagnostics from every vendor supporting every operator.

While it’s true that governments have access to these diagnostics already (it’s needed for lawful intercept purposes), enforcing this data to be more widely shared for the purposes of policing the ownership of network traffic would create somewhat dubious and duplicitous practices. What I mean is, the UK government, either through its regulators or the National Cyber Security Centre (NCSC), would have to intervene and analyse network traffic carried by a UK operator, to ensure other governments, Chinese or otherwise, weren’t doing exactly the same thing.

Another bone of contention is creating a clear distinction between Huawei being banned from UK core networks, but being ‘limited’ in the RAN. The move towards 5G service-based infrastructure is disrupting network architectures. Information processing powers are becoming more widely distributed – some of 5G’s most compelling use cases, like low latency communications, rely on operators using multi-access edge computing (MEC) and opening up their RANs and core networks to third parties (application developers and content providers, for example). The rules being suggested by the NCSC could seriously restrict the ability for UK operators using Huawei kit to offer these services and achieve ROI on 5G investments made to date. The NCSC refutes this, naturally.

To me, yesterday’s announcement raises more questions than it provides answers. At the end of the day, you can’t build viable 5G networks, given the challenges UK operators face in the here and now and achieve political appeasement. I hope the news hasn’t come as a surprise to UK operators, and that their views were complicit in the decision that was made – because the UK can’t afford to fall further behind in the race for real, standalone 5G connectivity.

Written by Paul Nolan


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