5G: BT picks Nokia to power networks as UK starts to phase out Huawei

The UK's leading communications provider is moving away from its long-standing Chinese partner following a government ban on Huawei's equipment.
Written by Daphne Leprince-Ringuet, Contributor

BT, the UK's largest provider of fixed-line, broadband and mobile services, has picked Nokia to build more of its 5G networks across the country, as the telco starts to move away from a long-established partnership with Chinese telecommunications giant Huawei.

It's 15 years since BT signed its first contract with Huawei to modernise the UK's broadband service, but now there is little space left for the Chinese company to participate in the development of next-generation networks in the country. Instead, Nokia is set to become BT's largest equipment provider, supplying 5G RAN infrastructure and services at BT radio sites across the UK.

The Finnish company already powers parts of BT's network in Greater London, the Midlands and certain rural locations, and the partnership will be extended to also cover multiple other towns and cities. As part of the deal, the Finnish company will also optimise BT's 2G, 3G and 4G networks.

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Pekka Lundmark, CEO of Nokia, said: "I am delighted that BT has extended its partnership with Nokia on 5G RAN, making Nokia BT's largest infrastructure partner. We are proud to support BT's 5G network evolution and look forward to working even more closely together in the years to come."

Nokia will provide 5G-ready base stations, antennas and radio access for both indoor and outdoor coverage, as well as a network management service called Nokia NetAct, which simplifies daily network operations including monitoring, surveillance, configuration management or user administration.

The new deal comes as communications service providers (CSPs) in the UK break ties with Huawei after the government told them in July to halt the purchase of 5G equipment from the Chinese company from 2021, a move largely driven by national security concerns. Telecoms companies are also required to remove all of Huawei's technology from their 5G networks over the next seven years so that in 2027, the UK's 5G networks are effectively Huawei-free.

Paolo Pescatore, analyst at PP Foresight, told ZDNet: "Encouragingly for the UK, BT has been able to move pretty quickly on deciding on a vendor. The providers in the UK have done a significant job in launching 5G in a very short time, and the last thing we want to see is the UK falling behind many of its counterparts."

BT stressed that the new partnership with Nokia was "the right technology choice", and that the deal will support the company's commitments to the UK government around the use of high-risk vendors in the country's network infrastructure. With the Finnish firm already providing parts of BT's 4G network, and the majority of 3G networks, Nokia seemed a logical pick.

It is hard to tell exactly how big a part Huawei has played in BT's deployments so far, because operators don't disclose the breakdown of vendor shares for their network equipment. In the course of 15 years, however, it is estimated that Huawei has come to provide between 30% and 40% of the country's overall network equipment. 

For example, in the case of BT's 4G infrastructure, some of which was designed to be upgraded to accommodate 5G networks, Huawei holds a bigger share than Nokia. This means that, in addition to halting the purchase of new infrastructure from Huawei, BT will also have to replace existing Huawei-supplied 4G kit with Nokia's technology, in order to go forward with 5G. 

BT anticipates that removing Huawei entirely from its 5G networks will cost an extra £500 million ($630 million). 

The cost is not the only challenge lying ahead for the UK firm. "There are numerous challenges for both BT and Nokia," said Pescatore. "They will be working with equipment they are not familiar with. They'll need to neatly integrate Nokia's equipment into Huawei's, and do that in a way that avoids disruptions in service."

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BT has already kick-started the transition away from Huawei: a few months ago, the UK CSP signed a deal with Ericsson to deploy the Swedish company's technology as a replacement for Huawei's equipment for core 4G, as well as standalone and non-standalone 5G.

Despite the extra costs and likely delays that come with the new approach imposed by the government, Pescatore argued that a multi-vendor approach might be the way forward, regardless of the security concerns linked to Huawei.

"All providers will now be looking at how they can facilitate their requirements in a multi-vendor approach," he said. "It will be more fragmented but having a diverse approach allows you to choose the best of each provider." 

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