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Vodafone defends its use of Huawei as 5G trials go live

As Vodafone begins trials of a live 5G service in Bristol, Cardiff and Liverpool, the operator’s CTO and general counsel have defended their use of Huawei equipment in Vodafone’s network and challenged its detractors to produce evidence of spying

Removing Huawei equipment from Vodafone’s UK mobile network – if Westminster was to enact a ban on its use in critical national infrastructure – would cost millions of pounds and cause significant disruption to the roll-out of 5G mobile networks in Britain, according to the operator’s UK chief technology officer Scott Petty.

At an event today, Petty said any hypothetical ban would have a significant impact on the operator because the first iterations of 5G will be running in non-standalone mode, meaning they need 4G to be in place behind it in order to work.

“If we were forced to remove Huawei from the network, we would be forced to go to the 32% of base stations that are currently using Huawei for radio and replace all of those with somebody else’s technology, and then deploy 5G on top of that,” he said.

“The cost of doing that runs into hundreds of millions and would dramatically affect our 5G business case. We would have to slow down deployment of 5G very significantly to go back and refresh our 4G network first to be able to overlay our 5G technology.

“We think that’s the wrong thing to do because it’s an area of the network that has very low risk and very low impact. We should be able to continue to work with Huawei in radio technology,” he said.

Vodafone’s general counsel and director of external affairs, Helen Lamprell, added: “Nothing we have seen suggests that that’s a proportionate response. We’ve not seen any evidence of security flaws and we’ve not seen any evidence of backdoors into the network. I don’t think anybody has put any evidence on the table.

“There would be a huge impact on the government’s ambition to be a leader in 5G – a huge cost to the industry, and for what?” said Lamprell. “If there’s evidence, we’d love to see it, but so far, we haven’t.”

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Working alongside the National Cyber Security Centre (NCSC), Vodafone has conducted extensive risk assessments of how its network might be exposed to the possibility of penetration, or an outright attack, by Chinese intelligence if there was a threat from Huawei.

To assess this risk, Vodafone breaks its network into three constituent parts: the radio access network (RAN), meaning its mobile base stations, where the risk of data being exposed is low; the transport network, meaning its fibre backhaul, where the risk is higher; and the core network, where the risk is highest.

Just under a third of Vodafone’s existing 4G base stations are based on Huawei equipment, with the rest using a mixture of Nokia and Ericsson. The transport and core networks have no exposure to Huawei and this will remain the case on the future 5G network, said Petty. The operator also incorporates equipment from Ciena, Cisco and Juniper into its network.

“Our belief is that by having a healthy supplier ecosystem with the right levels of interoperability and security between them – and our risk assessment based on the guidance from the NCSC – we can create an infrastructure where we can leverage Huawei so it can sense and protect the important parts of our network,” said Petty.

Petty and Lamprell were speaking as news broke that Huawei has filed a lawsuit in the US, claiming the American government’s ban on the use of its equipment and services within federal agencies is unconstitutional.

Meanwhile, Vodafone today announced it has switched on live trial 5G sites in Bristol, Cardiff and Liverpool, connected to its RedStream fibre network, in addition to ongoing tests in Birmingham, Glasgow and London. The test service is capable of delivering speeds of up to 10Gbps.

The operator also revealed today that it will be launching commercial 5G services in 12 more towns and cities this year. These are Birkenhead, Blackpool, Bournemouth, Guildford, Newbury, Portsmouth, Plymouth, Reading, Southampton, Stoke-on-Trent, Warrington and Wolverhampton.

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