VHA chief technology officer Michael Young has said that the deal with Huawei to revamp its mobile network was not in response to the customer uproar over network issues, but instead something that had been in planning since the middle of last year.
Young said the deal had been brewing for some time and was actually inked "just before Christmas", when the telco's network problems made the public eye. "I can see why people would think that — but we don't sign a few deals based on a few weeks' work," he said.
Huawei, he said, had been chosen for the work after VHA went through a small request for information and proposals process with four vendors. The three vendors were Nokia Siemens Networks and Ericsson, which both have existing relationships with VHA, and Chinese vendor ZTE, which has so far not manifested much of a presence in the Australian market.
In the end, Huawei was chosen on technical grounds. "We believe they are the best in the world right now for that technology," said Young, speaking of the radio access network component of VHA's network.
Some Australian commentators have consistently attempted to draw links between Huawei and the Chinese military and Communist Party, arguing it's not appropriate for Australian organisations to use the company's technology despite the fact that Huawei has existing relationships with most of Australia's major telcos and some 300 staff in Australia.
Young said the normal due diligence processes were carried out during the company's vendor selection process. "We see nothing that concerns us at all about Huawei," he said.
Building the network
The most recent Australian network construction effort of similar scale is likely to have been Telstra's construction of its Next G network in 2005 and 2006, which vendor Ericsson has acknowledged took place at a gruelling pace.
Young said VHA had the resources to get its own roll-out done over the next 18 months, and would form a joint project team with Huawei for the effort. He noted that Huawei was "going to drive this project" with the Chinese company, planning to hire more than 300 extra permanent local staff to get the job done.
Incremental network upgrades will also still be going ahead, according to Young. "We've separated project from business as usual," he said.
The roll-out will take place in a series of regions which VHA describes as "clusters" — which could be composed of 40 base stations, or as many as 120. The existing hardware will remain operational while the new Huawei hardware is installed to make sure that there will be no downtime for customers already frustrated with VHA network outages.
The eventual shift to the Long Term Evolution (LTE) family of technologies, which will eventually enable peak speeds of up to 150Mbps, will involve extra contingencies. For example, Young said VHA was rolling out dark fibre to something like 400 sites — to deal with the demand for increased capacity from base stations.
Young said that before the shift to LTE could take place, VHA would need to make sure both the extra capacity on its network and end user devices such as mobile phones and mobile broadband dongles supporting the standard were available.
The news comes just a week after Telstra announced its own shift to the LTE standard would take place in some metropolitan regions by the end of 2011. Optus is also trialling the standard and continuing to invest in its own network, dubbed the Open Network.