BT engineers have started removing Huawei radio equipment from EE’s 5G network in Hull, initiating a nationwide process that could take up to six years and cost up to £500 million.
UK operators are now banned by the government from purchasing Huawei’s Radio Access Network (RAN) products on alleged national security ground and must remove any kit currently deployed in their 5G networks by 2027.
This reversal in policy was made following pressure from the US and made despite the absence of evidence and Huawei’s denials of any wrongdoing.
BT EE 5G replacement plans
Operators who planned to use Huawei equipment in their 5G networks had argued any ban would lead to delays, a reduction in innovation, and additional expense. Indeed, the government itself admits it expects the ban to delay 5G rollout by up to three years and add £2 billion of additional costs.
However, the operators have since made peace with the ruling and have sourced equipment from other providers. BT has allocated £500 million for the purchase of replacement kit from Ericsson and Nokia.
Nokia will become BT’s biggest single supplier of RAN technology, while Ericsson will be used in the busiest parts of the network.
It is thought that up to 12,000 sites will be covered by the replacement programme, which will be a time-consuming exercise because of the logistical and legal challenges associated with network upgrades.
Speaking to Bloomberg, BT’s CTO Howard Watson said the decision to start in one city was made to ensure that there was no impact on customer service, adding that the signs were positive so far.
In a bid to mitigate any negative consequences of the Huawei ban, the government has made efforts to diversify the supply chain for operators. It has encouraged Samsung and NEC to enter the UK market, while it has promoted the development of OpenRAN equipment.
OpenRAN is a vendor-neutral approach with standardised designs that allow a variety of firms to supply hardware and software. Operators benefit from increased innovation from a wider range of suppliers, reduced costs and greater flexibility because the threat of vendor lock-in is reduced.
Vodafone has been a notable supporter of OpenRAN as it believes a healthy ecosystem could help it replace Huawei equipment in rural areas.