The UK government reportedly wants to invite NEC and Samsung to participate in 5G technology trials as it seeks to provide a more diverse pool of equipment suppliers that would allow operators to ditch Huawei entirely.
All four major UK operators are Huawei customers and oppose any ban on the grounds that it would increase prices and decrease competition.
After a perpetually-delayed review of the market, the government confirmed in January that operators would be allowed to use Huawei’s kit in the radio layer of 5G networks – subject to a 35 per cent cap – but not in the core layer. This effectively maintains the status quo as no operator planned to use Huawei for core technology.
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UK 5G networks
However wider geopolitical tensions have changed the situation once more. The National Cyber Security Council (NCSC) is reviewing the impact of new sanctions on Huawei imposed by the US while Tory party MPs want an outright ban on Huawei amid concerns about China’s handling of the coronavirus crisis.
It has been suggested that operators could be forced to remove all Huawei kit by 2023 but privately it is acknowledged that this is impossible without causing serious disruption to the UK’s communications infrastructure. Huawei accounts for roughly a third of all 4G antennas in the UK.
Ericsson and Nokia compete with Huawei in the 5G radio space but there are doubts about their ability to fill the void entirely, while operators would have competition concerns.
To this end, Bloomberg says government officials have spoken with Japan’s NEC about the possibility of it entering the UK market. The company would be invited to participate in a trial programme called ‘5G create’, funded by the Department for Culture, Media and Sport’s (DCMS) latest £200 million 5G test scheme. It is also said that the government wants to get Samsung involved too.
NEC is a key supplier of Radio Access Network (RAN) technology for operators in Japan but has a limited presence outside of its homeland. During the 3G era, Japan was sometimes referred to as the ‘Galapagos Islands’ of mobile because of its unique handset and network ecosystem.
Although advances in smartphone technology and the standardisation of handsets globally has limited this perception in 4G and 5G, Japanese mobile operators have benefited from highly customised radio equipment from the likes of NEC. Away from the radio layer, NEC recently teamed up with newcomer Rakuten Mobile on the development of a standalone-5G core.
Samsung also has a limited presence in the mobile equipment market but has big ambitions for 5G, hoping to secure 20 per cent of the market by 2020. It has seen strong demand in its native South Korea as well as from US operators who are banned from working with Huawei.
The US has been increasing pressure on its allies to ban Huawei from their countries on national security grounds, despite not proving any evidence to support its claims. Senator Tom Cotton told a Parliamentary Select Committee last week that the UK and US could work its allies to create a Huawei competitor.
Huawei vice-president Victor Zhang responded: “Today’s committee concentrated on America’s desire for a home-grown 5G company that can ‘match’ or ‘beat’ Huawei. It’s clear its market position, rather than security concerns, underpins America’s attack on Huawei as the committee was given no evidence to substantiate security allegations.
“We welcome open and fair competition as it fosters innovation and drives down costs for everyone. Over the last 20 years, we have worked hard with our customers and partners for building Britain’s robust and secure 3G and 4G networks and we are now focused on delivering the 5G network to the same high standards. This is fundamental to achieving the UK government’s Gigabit broadband target by 2025. ”
NEC declined to comment on the reports. Samsung and DCMS have been approached by TechRadar Pro.
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Steve McCaskill is TechRadar Pro's resident mobile industry expert, covering all aspects of the UK and global news, from operators to service providers and everything in between. He is a former editor of Silicon UK and journalist with over a decade's experience in the technology industry, writing about technology, in particular, telecoms, mobile and sports tech, sports, video games and media.