Nokia nabs greater part of BT 5G infrastructure

As UK incumbent telco continues removing Huawei technology from its network, Finnish comms tech giant scores big

Following the UK government’s decision to remove technology supplied by “high-risk” suppliers such as Huawei from the country’s growing 5G communications infrastructure, BT has extended its long-term strategic relationship with Nokia into the 5G arena, selecting it as a 5G RAN supplier for the UK operator.

On 14 July 2020, the UK government made its long-expected decision to commit to a timetable for removing Huawei equipment from the 5G network by 2027. The decision was said to have been taken after the UK’s National Cyber Security Centre reviewed the consequences of the decision by the US government on 15 May to extend its restrictions on the sale of hardware and software to so-called “high-risk” suppliers such as Huawei, leading to the Chinese comms tech giant not being able to buy equipment from longstanding suppliers.

Yet as the ban was being announced, the UK government also conceded that the decision would have huge cost implications. Not only had a January 2020 decision to restrict Huawei technology to just the radio access network of the 5G infrastructure already set back the national 5G roll-out programme by a year and cost up to £1bn, but the July decision to ban the procurement of new Huawei 5G equipment from the end of this year would delay the 5G roll-out by a further year and add up to £500m to costs.

Also, requiring the UK’s operators to remove any Huawei equipment from their 5G networks by 2027 was likely to add hundreds of millions of pounds to the cost and further delay the roll-out.

Speaking to the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee in July, Andrea Dona, head of networks at Vodafone UK, and Howard Watson, chief technology and information officer at BT Group, both warned that to rip out long-established Huawei technology from their networks, from not only from nascent 5G infrastructures but also long-established 4G and 3G nets, would cost both firms sums of money in the small billions.

They added that they would need at least five years to undertake the work to avoid potential service blackouts, and not damage both firms’ commitments to further developing a 5G infrastructure across the UK.

In the wake of this, Nokia has increased its market share of BT’s radio access network, providing equipment and services at BT radio sites across the UK, helping to evolve BT’s radio access network to 5G and supporting its goal of maintaining the UK’s best network. In doing so, it will become BT’s largest equipment provider.

BT’s current Nokia-powered network – which includes Greater London, the Midlands and rural locations – will be extended to cover multiple other towns and cities across the UK, and the increased footprint will support BT’s commitments to the UK government around the use of high-risk vendors in UK network infrastructure.

In the BT network, Nokia will supply its AirScale Single RAN (S-RAN) portfolio for both indoor and outdoor coverage, including 5G RAN, AirScale base stations and Nokia AirScale radio access products.

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Nokia said this technology will enable BT to build on its existing network leadership in the UK to deliver connectivity and capacity benefits to consumers at ultra-low latencies, as well as reducing complexity and increasing cost efficiencies. The deal will also see Nokia optimise BT’s 2G and 4G networks and work alongside BT on the development of the OpenRAN ecosystem.

As part of BT’s network transformation, the operator will also use Nokia Software’s ng-SDM and NetAct network management platform, supporting the network evolution to 5G. Nokia will also supply its cell site gateway, providing key backhaul connectivity, and will also provide digital design and deployment for a faster time to market as well as optimisation and technical support services.

“Digital connectivity is critical to the UK’s economic future, creating jobs and underpinning sustainable growth,” said BT Group CEO Philip Jansen. “That’s why BT is making game-changing investments in full fibre and 5G.

“In a fast-moving and competitive market, it’s critical we make the right technology choices. With this next stage of our successful relationship with Nokia, we will continue to lead the roll-out of fixed and mobile networks to deliver stand-out experiences for customers.”

The announcement was a major milestone in the UK telco market’s pivot away from Huawei, and will add some much-needed certainty to the market, avoiding some of the delays to 5G adoption feared when the Huawei ban was announced, said Guillermo Pedraja, head of networks, 5G and IoT consulting at NTT DATA UK.

“Nokia is one of a range of established players, including Ericsson and Japan’s NEC, jockeying to capitalise on the Huawei bans in the West. Going forward, these big headline deals are likely to be matched by Western telco operators building partnerships with smaller, niche companies in the market, establishing an ecosystem of alternative suppliers of telco equipment.”

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