As the dust appears to settle around Huawei and the UK’s decision to use other 5G suppliers, David Sutton FBCS takes a calming look across the telecommunications horizon and give his views what how the future may shape up.

Recent months have seen much debate about the future of 5G technology and in particular the UK’s possible reliance on the Chinese company Huawei, one of the world’s largest manufacturers of telecommunications equipment.

When ITNOW first covered this story in March 2019, the debate was mainly around security concerns that the Chinese government was using Huawei equipment for nation state-level espionage. It was, back then, alleged that Huawei could have built backdoors into their equipment.

In January 2020, the UK government designated Huawei as a ‘High Risk Vendor’ (HRV) and, as such, placed tight restrictions on the use of the company’s 5G products. Since then, the world has moved on, and so has the debate, fuelled largely by strong political pressure from the USA.

The political view

The US government has banned Huawei from using American microchip development software to design its circuits, and from buying certain microchips from US suppliers. It has pressured other nations to cut Huawei out of their national infrastructures, stating that it would have difficulty sharing intelligence information with them if they refused.

Our own government initially appeared cautiously in favour of Huawei, but changed its position to ban Huawei in July 2020. The UK’s network operators are currently required not to purchase any new Huawei network equipment after 2020 and to remove all existing Huawei equipment from the UK’s 5G networks by the end of 2027.

Of the other three members of the Five Eyes intelligence sharing community, Australia and New Zealand have both agreed to follow the USA’s lead, whilst Canada has still not made a formal statement either way, although it appears that Canada will eventually follow suit.

The financial view

Huawei’s markets are extremely varied. As well as providing telecommunications equipment for both fixed and mobile networks, they manufacture smartphones, laptop computers and routers for both ends of broadband connections. Try running an IP address scanner to check whether Huawei made your broadband router - it will probably be the first entry in the address table.

Whilst the American sanctions will doubtless have a short-term impact on their supply chain, Huawei has not attained a dominant market position by simply copying or buying in from other manufacturers. It is highly capable of in-house development of software and hardware, so it seems unlikely that there will be a major impact on their revenue streams in the longer term.

Although Huawei has now effectively been excluded from the core of fixed and mobile networks in the UK, the network core is not where their main revenues lie - these originate largely from radio access network (RAN) equipment since that is where millions of devices will be needed if wide-scale 5G coverage is to be achieved. It should be borne in mind that the UK is a relatively small market when compared to the rest of the world.

The security view

Huawei’s equipment has been under continuous and detailed scrutiny by the UK’s National Cyber Security Centre (NCSC) for a decade. Although performance weaknesses and security vulnerabilities have been discovered, it is unthinkable that Huawei would not have fixed these to the satisfaction of the testers, and the government’s oversight report of 2019 appears to confirm this.

However, it is very important to understand that in the thousands or millions of lines of executable code that these systems contain, spotting a vulnerability or backdoor is like looking for a very small needle in a field full of very large haystacks. It is theoretically possible that some may have slipped through the net.

But does this mean that their products are any less secure than those from other manufacturers who have not been subjected to the same level of scrutiny? There appears to have been no discussion about whether the likes of Nokia or Ericsson have built backdoors into their equipment and, as far as we are aware, there are no equivalents to the Huawei Cyber Security Evaluation Centre (HCSEC) for them.

So, the question ‘does any other similar manufacturers’ equipment contain serious security vulnerabilities?’ appears yet to be asked.

Bearing in mind the extent to which NCSC have examined Huawei hardware, software and firmware, it could reasonably be argued that their equipment has been proven to be very secure indeed, so are the security concerns really valid?

The network operators’ view

For BT (EE) and Vodafone, the impact is likely to be moderately significant, since they have already invested in Huawei RAN equipment. Telefónica O2 on the other hand has opted to use other suppliers, so there is no impact on them - yet. However, the situation will undoubtedly put additional pressure on Nokia and Ericsson who are the other main suppliers to the UK mobile networks. The future supply chain could be impacted for all three.

As of the beginning of October 2020, only EE have reported that an agreement has been reached for a replacement supplier - in their case with Nokia. This leaves Vodafone with the problem, not only of replacing some of their 5G infrastructure, but also of extending the rollout using other suppliers.

As Huawei is thought to be a less costly choice, this also presents EE and Vodafone with their own set of financial issues, together with Huawei’s suggestion that this would significantly delay their 5G rollout, and would ‘place the UK in the digital slow lane’.

If their investment in 5G network equipment is to be worthwhile and generate a reasonable financial return, and in order to make 5G a viable service, there must not only be end-user devices but also significant applications that will be able to take advantage of the speeds suggested. At least one European mobile network operator has stated that there currently appears to be little immediate demand for 5G services, so the digital slow lane argument, whilst quite emotive, could be seen as potentially little more than smoke and mirrors.

The technical view

If a fast and ubiquitous wireless network is a fundamental requirement to interconnect potentially millions of devices for the internet of things, and also to provide high-speed broadband connectivity for homes and businesses, obviating the need, expense and inconvenience of fibre optic or copper cabling, are there alternatives to 5G and can they be implemented sooner rather than later?

Well, the answer is both yes and no. There already exists a radio-based solution - known as LoRaWAN - a low power wide-area networking protocol which delivers many of the services for which 5G is purported to be the salvation. It does have some drawbacks in that it operates on unlicensed frequencies, and supports lower data rates compared to 5G. But, it has been shown to have a considerably greater range and can interconnect devices that need to exchange data at lower speeds very effectively without the need to increase core network capacity.

5G, on the other hand is far superior at handling larger data volumes at greater speeds, but at a much-reduced range, so there is actually potential for both technologies to co-exist, and reduce the appetite for 5G.

Also, there has been relatively little 5G RAN technology deployed to date, and the little that is in place makes considerable use of the existing 4G core networks.

What does it mean for us as consumers?

At the moment, very little. There are a few mobile handsets with 5G capability on the market and, if you are fortunate to live in an area served by a 5G RAN, you may be able to download a two-hour film in a few seconds rather than a few minutes. Frankly however, that’s currently about as good as it gets. True, it will make the ‘last mile’ internet deployment simpler and cheaper in the long term, but as the recent BCS survey noted:

“Huawei’s claim that the UK will somehow be thrown into a dark age without them looks like hubris, according to most IT professionals.”

So, what is the impact on the average consumer? In the short term, not much; in the longer term, probably even less. 4G is more than adequate for most people’s needs, and I for one would be perfectly happy to have a half-decent mobile signal so that I can make and receive calls without the need to hang out of an upstairs window!