The UK has banned Huawei from 5G deployments, but how could this impact plans to use the mobile tech in broadcasting? James Pearce investigates.

Huawei 5G (Ascannio shutterstock)

Huawei: To be removed from 5G networks by 2027

Source: Ascannio Shutterstock

The decision seemed inevitable, but now the UK government has pulled the plug on Huawei’s role in building out the country’s 5G infrastructure, it leaves plans for 5G up in the year. 

Ministers have expressed a desire for the UK to become a world leader in 5G. But under pressure from the United States, and with concerns over security, the UK has said telecoms operators will need to remove 5G Huawei kit from their networks by 2027. 

Announcing the decision, culture secretary Oliver Dowden declared that the UK will be on an “irreversible path” to eliminating “high-risk vendors” such as Huawei, citing security concerns and recent sanctions introduced by Donald Trump’s administration. 

The decision, a reversal on a previous decision to just limit Huawei’s role in 5G deployments, means the UK’s major telcos – BT-owned EE, Vodafone, O2 and Three – can no longer buy 5G equipment from Huawei as of 31 December 2020. 

Huawei has always denied any wrongdoing. In a statement, the Chinese vendor said: “This disappointing decision is bad news for anyone in the UK with a mobile phone. It threatens to move Britain into the digital slow lane, push up bills and deepen the digital divide. Instead of ‘levelling up’ the government is levelling down and we urge them to reconsider. We remain confident that the new US restrictions would not have affected the resilience or security of the products we supply to the UK. 

“Regrettably our future in the UK has become politicized, this is about US trade policy and not security. Over the past 20 years, Huawei has focused on building a better connected UK. As a responsible business, we will continue to support our customers as we have always done. 

“We will conduct a detailed review of what today’s announcement means for our business here and will work with the UK government to explain how we can continue to contribute to a better connected Britain.” 

The problem for the UK’s telecoms operators is rollout of 5G technology is already in full swing, and Huawei is one of the three biggest vendors, alongside Ericsson and Nokia. 

In this week’s Tech Expert, Mark Smith explains the pending impact, benefits and applications of 5G to broadcast, media and entertainment.

In June BT’s EE-branded mobile business had a 5G service in 80 locations, while O2’s was available in 60, according to market research by Omdia, as cited by Light Reading. Numbers for Three and Vodafone are unclear. 

The cost of ditching Huawei is complex to work out. Dowden estimates a cumulative delay to 5G roll out of two to three years and costs of up to £2bn” although industry sources suggested to IBC365 this could be even higher. 

Huawei technology has been deployed in around 20,000 base stations across the UK, according to the firm itself. 

In its financial guidance to the London Stock exchange BT, estimated the cost of phasing out Huawei equipment from its 5G network by 2027 to be around £500 million. The telecoms and media giant uses Huawei and Ericsson kit mainly, and is estimated to use Huawei in two thirds of its mobile sites. 

Three uses Nokia in its core network, but Huawei is its main 5G RAN partner, while 32% of Vodafone’s sites last year were believed to use Huawei kit. 

Telefonica’s O2 may be in the best position, given it picked Ericsson and Nokia as its main partners. 

If 5G deployments slow, so will the development of new use cases that are set to benefit the broadcast industry. 5G is seen as a key technology in developing new connected camera equipment, while the EBU also identified 5G as a potential for the distribution needs of the industry. 

Ian Wagdin

Ian Wagdin: R&D senior technology manager at BBC

The report, published in June, concluded that 5G could meet the distribution requirements of both public service and commercial broadcasters. However, there are significant structural barriers that will need to be overcome to realise the potential of 5G. 

LTE-Broadcast has had limited take-up so far. The Global Mobile Suppliers Association (GSA) reported last summer that 41 mobile operators had either evaluated or trialled the technology, but only five commercial services have been launched, with none in Europe. 

The EBU concluded that technically 5G Broadcast could fulfil many broadcaster requirements for the distribution of linear services to portable devices. Unlike LTE, the new standards will accommodate the idea that media organisations could operate dedicated 5G Broadcast networks independently of mobile operators. A free-to-air transmission mode would allow linear services to be made available to all mobile devices, regardless of a user’s mobile network.   

With a delay in 5G deployments, UK broadcasters also face the possibility of delays to including 5G in their broadcast setups. 

It isn’t just delivery that will be impacted. Earlier this year, BBC R&D’s Ian Wagdin told IBC365 how the broadcaster’s tech division was looking into the role 5G could play in production. 

As BBC R&D senior technology transfer manager Wagdin explained: “Bonded cellular units have revolutionised workflows in newsgathering by allowing journalists and crews go live from anywhere with suitable coverage using a simple backpack or camera mounted device to encode and relay video without the need for large vehicles and lots of cables.” 

For the UK at least, the lack of Huawei tech could delay adoption of 5G tech even further.

Look inside IBC Showcase (8-11 September 2020)