What does the 5G landscape look like without Huawei?

What does the government’s forced removal of Huawei mean for the competitive landscape and delivery plans of the UK’s 5G network?

Chintan Patel is pretty relaxed about Huawei exiting the UK’s embryonic 5G competitive landscape, following the government’s decision to rein in the Chinese tech giant’s hold over this country’s telecom infrastructure. Recent months, he notes, have already seen big businesses seal deals with other operators. It’s a sign of renewed confidence.

“Obviously there’s going to be a lot of focus on cost savings now among network providers,” says Cisco’s UK and Ireland chief technology officer. “Suppliers are going to be looking to do more with less. There’s the impact of the pandemic too and the issue of momentum in the marketplace in terms of device availability. I still think we can expect 5G to develop over the coming years at a slow but steady pace.”

However, he adds, with one stark difference: if 5G might once have been expected to be the preserve of the telecom giants building huge networks – if not Huawei, then the likes of Ericsson or Nokia – then now it’s increasingly possible it will instead be provided by a conglomeration of smaller enterprises. “What we’re seeing is a fundamental shift going on here,” says Patel.

Opening the 5G competitive landscape up

Paolo Pescatore at telecoms industry analysts Foresight concurs: “There’s now going to be an opportunity in this 5G market not just for big players, including those out of the United States and Japan, but for a lot more smaller players.

“The question is whether these small players are ready for the UK’s 5G competitive landscape. Smaller companies make for a more fragmented approach, which comes with its own challenges, such that some standardised platform may be required. What’s required is an assessment of how best to work with new players to ensure a smooth transition.”

There’s now going to be an opportunity in this 5G market not just for big players… but for a lot more smaller players

But clearly it’s not just the scaling back of Huawei that lies behind this shift in the 5G competitive landscape. Stefano Cantarelli, chief marketing officer for Mavenir, provider of end-to-end network software, argues that two factors are key to its future, not just disaggregation, but what is termed virtualisation.

This refers to the 5G network allowing for the division of hardware resources into functions that can be controlled by software, ultimately enabling those resources to be allocated to service the needs of specific customers without requiring complicated adjustments to physical infrastructure. That, he says, will enable this new ecosystem comprising many new companies, not least integrators specialising in pulling everything together.

What is openRAN?

Virtualisation has, on paper at least, also created a market for what’s known as openRAN, radio access networks comprising off-the-shelf hardware and software components from several vendors and operating over open networks. Not all operators will be confident in taking the option, but Vodafone UK has thrown down the gauntlet in beginning openRAN trials, initially for 4G, with software suppliers Parallel Wireless and Mavenir, and could deploy an openRAN 5G network by 2025. Look out too for openRAN software startup Altiostar.

“This approach is going to give operators a unique opportunity to select each best-in-class element to make the best network for their specific needs. It’s a chance not to rely on one monolithic vendor,” says David Levi, chief executive of networking software company Ethernity. “The situation in the UK isn’t much different to that across the rest of Europe. Post-Huawei some operators are scrambling for a solution, but others will now take their time to do some homework.”

After all, this coming multi-player approach is still unproven and poses all sorts of complications, security issues for example, or responsibility for maintenance when there’s any kind of outage. Given this, whether the 5G competitive landscape in the UK embraces emerging suppliers or simply doubles down on the remaining big guns – Ericsson and Nokia are the only companies bar Huawei to provide complete 5G networks – remains uncertain. As Kester Mann, director of consumer and connectivity for tech analysts CCS Insight, notes: “Operators do tend to be risk averse.”

Hence, the relative paucity of 5G mobile phones available so far, nearly all from Samsung or Oppo, a Chinese brand that launched in the UK only last year. Nobody is exactly rushing into 5G in the UK, not least because of the huge infrastructure that needs to be put in place. And this may well be no bad thing.

Business leads on 5G

Certainly, for all the consumer buzz around the coming of UK 5G, it’s not with consumers that its future really lies, but with driving enterprise. “Consumers won’t pay more for a service they can’t get everywhere, especially when the costs [of developing a 5G network] will likely be passed on to them,” says Pescatore at Foresight. Until there’s some leap in demand for data, through gaming perhaps, 4G remains more than adequate for most uses.

Rather, as Cisco’s Patel agrees, the real value proposition for 5G lies with business and what it can do with attendant technologies such as the internet of things, new sensors and meters. That’s why Cisco has launched a UK programme focusing on bringing 5G to rural “not spots” to aid more remote industries like agriculture, fishing and renewable energy. And why Vodafone has already started to build the UK’s first private 5G network for the oil and gas industry.

Business needs reliability and stability and so, for the next couple of years at least, it’s likely that those seeking to be at the leading edge of using 5G in the UK will turn to Ericsson and Nokia, with legacy experience of managing the 4G LTE (long-term evolution) network that the non-standalone initial incarnation of 5G is based on. Then look out for Samsung that has recently struck a $6.6- billion deal with Verizon in America and, though it’s been conservative in chasing Western markets, may be changing its mind given the post-Huawei UK landscape.

“The fact is that right now openRAN is just not as good as purpose-built networks from the likes of a Nokia,” argues Daryl Schoolar, practice leader for fixed and mobile infrastructure at tech consultancy Omdia. “It’s worth remembering that 5G itself is still an immature technology, layered up with virtualisation, another immature technology. But then it’s also worth noting how recent years have shown just how quickly technology can advance.”