BT and Ericsson sign 5G deal as Huawei ban takes shape

Leading UK communications provider BT has signed up its second alternative 5G network vendor.

5G will happen without Huawei in the UK

In a widely anticipated move, the UK's leading communications provider BT has picked Ericsson to provide 5G connectivity in several major cities across the country, including all four capitals London, Edinburgh, Belfast and Cardiff. 

The announcement comes just one month after BT sealed a similar deal with Nokia, as part of an effort to remove Huawei equipment entirely from the country's 5G networks, following the UK government's ruling that the Chinese company should be barred from participating in the deployment of next-generation mobile connectivity.

Last summer, security concerns prompted the government to require CSPs in the UK to halt the purchase of 5G equipment from Huawei from 2021, and to phase out the use of the Chinese company's technology in 5G networks over the next seven years. The objective is to run 5G networks with no Huawei equipment whatsoever from 2027.
 
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Nokia was, therefore, selected to provide 5G RAN (Radio Access Network) infrastructure and services at BT radio sites across the UK. But with BT historically operating a dual-vendor policy to avoid total dependence on a single provider, it was expected that another partnership announcement would soon follow.

Ericsson appeared to be the obvious choice, given the Swedish company's well-established relationship with BT. In fact, earlier this year Ericsson was selected by BT to replace Huawei's equipment in core 5G networks, which are more sensitive parts of the infrastructure. 

Expanding on the existing partnership between the two companies, the new agreement between BT and Ericsson will see the Swedish company managing around half of BT's 5G traffic once the deployment is completed.

"Having already been selected to partner in 5G Core, we are pleased to strengthen the relationship further with this deal that will deliver high performance and secure 5G to their customers across the UK's major cities," said Börje Ekholm, president and CEO of Ericsson.

The company will deploy 5G RAN and modernize previous 2G, 3G and 4G networks to enable migration from 4G to 5G in densely populated and high-traffic locations, tapping a portfolio of hardware, software and services such as antenna systems, transport, power, and various site services.

A large part of the work will consist of migrating Huawei equipment that's currently used in BT's networks over to Ericsson kit. Any 4G equipment provided by Huawei, and which can be upgraded to 5G by Ericsson, will effectively need to be replaced by infrastructure provided by the Swedish company.

Costly process

This will be a costly process, which BT estimated will require an extra £500 million ($630 million) for its overall network, and it will also be difficult from a technical point of view. Migrating significant chunks of network infrastructure to a new vendor, be it Ericsson or Nokia, without affecting customers' experience, will be a tough challenge.

BT has time on its side, however. The 2027 deadline is a realistic timeframe for the company to complete the migration away from Huawei. With seven years to go, it's unlikely that large-scale ripping and replacing will be necessary -- a method that would inevitably result in service disruption.

For example, on a location covered by several cell sites, it will be possible to gradually migrate the equipment by only switching off one base station at a time. This would take longer, but avoid a service outage.

Kester Mann, analyst at CCS Insights, told ZDNet: "It is obvious that BT will take some time to ensure as a priority that the process doesn't disrupt customer experience. It is complicated, but there is plenty of time for this to happen. Although there are costs associated, I would say that the timeframe provided is fair on operators."

BT, for its part, is pitching the government restrictions as an opportunity to rethink the company's network from the ground up, to adapt to new demographics and geographic trends.

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In a separate blog post, Howard Watson, BT's chief technology and information officer, said that the company's partnerships with Nokia and Ericsson would enable BT to comply with the UK government's requirements, but also to shape a brand-new network infrastructure in what he called a "powerful opportunity".

At the same time, Huawei has published a new report from research firm Assembly -- which the Chinese company sponsored -- highlighting that a delay in rolling out 5G in the UK would risk the realisation of 350,000 new jobs in London and the south-east, and jeopardise £108 billion ($140 billion) of economic benefit.

Putting the country on the digital slow lane, said Huawei, will disrupt industries including manufacturing, robotics, healthcare and remote learning.

According to CCS Insight's Mann, banning Huawei from the UK's network infrastructure has also raised concerns about vendor diversity, by forcing CSPs to rely on a limited number of leading suppliers -- in this case, Nokia and Ericsson. 

"It's hard to put a positive spin on the Huawei situation," said Mann. "It's overall negative, and it doesn't do anyone in the industry any good at all, including customers."