Last week, I caught up with Huawei’s president for global government affairs, Victor Zhang, to discuss Huawei’s role in the UK’s 5G revolution and how he hopes to continue that relationship for decades to come
The UK has found itself as something of a leader in the 5G market, becoming one of the first countries in Europe to launch next generation mobile services. Do you expect to see the UK continue to lead on 5G?
"5G is a really hot topic at the moment, whether from the technological perspective or the security perspective.
"The UK has made the right decision from both a governmental and industry point of view. The government has focussed on a policy of 5G and full fibre on the fixed line side of things. This is very good practice and will help it deliver next generation, digital infrastructure.
"We were excited to see that EE has launched 5G in the UK last month, making the UK one of the first countries in Europe to do so. This will help to build a leading position for the UK in terms of next generation mobile networks. We are a key partner of all the major mobile network operators – EE, Vodafone, Three and Telefonica [O2]. We are happy to see our customers continue to lead the rollout of 5G, particularly in Europe."
Huawei has been a key player in the UK’s 5G rollout – what has been your proudest achievement?
"5G is an evolution of 4G – it’s not brand new. But make no mistake, 5G is different from 4G. 5G will address a number of issues. Firstly, connection; secondly, lower latency; and thirdly, most importantly is capacity.
"Huawei started to invest in 5G 10 years ago. We put so much investment into the research and development process, as well as working with international standards bodies and our industry partners to develop the 5G ecosystem. Without this ecosystem, you can not support the commercial applications of 5G. We are really proud of our involvement over the past decade.
"The first major mobile deployment for Huawei [in the UK] was in 2011/12 when we partnered with EE to become the first company to rollout 4G LTE services. As I mentioned, 5G is an evolution of 4G technology and the UK operators will launch their 5G services based on their current 4G and LTE network infrastructure. That’s why we are so happy to continue working with our customers, to help them achieve their commercial objectives, and to continue to serve the UK’s consumers, so they can continue to enjoy the rollout of next generation services."
Obviously there is a lot of discussion about security at the moment. Huawei has been banned from doing business within the US, and with any US companies. What effect will that ban have on your business?
"We were disappointed about the US ban. Actually, we only had a very small amount of business in the US, mainly in the very rural areas of the country, where connectivity coverage is sparse. We were helping them to provide connectivity to hard to reach communities.
"The US ban has no commercial motivation – it is purely due to the trade war between the US and China.
"For the US to ban Huawei from doing business in the US is a lose-lose situation. The US operators will be forced to spend more money to build their digital networks, especially with regard to 4G and 5G. According to third party reports, US operators may have to pay 30 per cent higher costs that European operators, because they have banned Huawei from being involved in their technology supply."
What about the situation in the UK? How do you think things will develop for Huawei here?
"We work really closely with the industry and the government here in the UK.
"We work closely with the DCMS and also the NCSC, but we also work very closely with the operators.
"Obviously, we can’t comment on the result [of the government’s deliberations] because it hasn’t been announced yet. What I will say is that the UK is one of the most open and fair business environments in the world. We think the UK will make the right decision for the future economic development based on the evidence and what new technologies offer."
You have really strong relationships with all of the UK’s existing mobile network operators – it’s clear that they want to keep working with you. It must be important to be able to draw on those relationships at times like these?
"Correct. As I said, we are one of the key partners for all of the UK’s mobile network operators. Take 4G as an example: We worked with all the operators, together with other suppliers, to build the country’s 4G network architecture. We hope to carry on working with our partners to help them achieve their objectives particularly in the 5G era. Britain is a leader in 5G and that is because of a lot of hard work by the operators.
"With 5G development we need to think about more than just technology. We need to think about how we can balance the technology with security management. Security management is not down to a single operator or a single company. We must manage it on an end-to-end basis.
"We need a common set of codified standards that everyone can comply with.
"The UK government and operators in the country have agreed that the next generation of mobile networks need to be more resilient. This means that the network must be more reliable. We need to diversify the supply chain for supporting future technologies."
Do you feel that Huawei is subject to more scrutiny than its competitors, like Nokia and Ericsson, for example?
"We continue to work closely with the UK government to tackle cyber security challenges. In 2010 we established the Huawei Cyber Security Centre in Banbury, which is overseen by the UK government. We believe that this is a really positive approach to mitigating the cyber security risk. During the last 8 years, this approach has worked really well.
"The latest report from the oversite board says that the UK applied the most rigorous standards to Huawei of anyone in the world. I can’t comment on other vendors, because we don’t know what approach the UK government takes with them. Anyway, we are committed to working with the UK government to demonstrate our transparency. We are confident of addressing all the issues identified."
Healthy competition in the 5G sector is a good thing – for vendors just as much as for consumers – because it drives innovation. If Huawei was to be excluded from the UK’s 5G network rollout, what effect would that have on innovation in the country?
"That is 100 per cent correct. Without competition, the rate of innovation will slow down. If you have just one provider, there is no drive from the company to innovate or provide new solutions.
"Competition will provide cost effective solutions, because the operators have the right to choose the best technology based on the commercial affordability of the product. Without competition you can not achieve this.
"Finally, competition doesn’t necessarily imply a conflict between vendors. The other side of the coin is collaboration. We need to work together. Thanks to competition, we can have a multi-vendor environment. The muilti-vendor environment demands cooperation and collaboration. This is really important for the future development of the industry.
"This makes it even more important that we get some codified standards in place. I mentioned earlier, security is not just the government’s responsibility. It’s the responsibility of governments, suppliers, operators, everybody needs to work together to create these standards that can mitigate security risk."
At the moment 5G is on a non-stand-alone basis. How will the country’s eventual transition towards stand-alone 5G affect you, given the current sensitivities about Huawei being involved in the network core?
"This is a good question. As I mentioned 5G is an evolution from 4G – technologically speaking it will continue to carry on a similar architecture to 4G, with a clear definition of the core and the access edge. The difference between 4G and 5G is that 5G will have far more advanced capability, especially from a deployment perspective.
"For the core network, 5G will allow network virtualisation and cloud computing, which will mean a lot of decentralisation. This will allow for much higher capacity and almost unlimited connections. It will allow the core network to deal with the huge volumes of traffic from the access network.
"The evolution of the access network will be different than it was for 4G. 4G has smaller base stations than 3G. 5G will have even smaller cells. There will be less traditional base stations with 5G, so this will allow data communication, close to the end user.
"This definition of a clear boundary between the core and the access network is very important for the operators. Of course, the operators have already designed the security mechanisms for their 4G networks but this is not enough for 5G, because you are not just talking about connecting people to people, but connecting people to things. Therefore, we need to really address security management. Between the core layers and the access layers of the network you have a standard interface in place, so that the layers can talk to each other. Because of this layered network, it means that operators can choose to pursue a multi-vendor environment in their network architecture. You can choose multiple vendors for the access portion and multiple vendors for the core, making sure that they can all work together.
"A multi-vendor approach is one of the key ways to manage security. It has real benefits for the security management of a network."
What can the UK government do to work more closely with Huawei to help guarantee network security?
"The UK is a very open country with an emphasis on free trade. That’s why the UK has had a leading position ever since the first industrial revolution. We hope that the UK will maintain its position as a 5G leader for at least the next decade. For the past 18 years we’ve worked really closely with the government and our UK customers to provide the best technology possible.
"Therefore, we treat the UK as one of our most important investment destinations, because the UK has some of the best talent in the world.
"We continue to work closely with our partners to make sure that Huawei can remain one of the key partners in Britain’s digital transformation.
"One thing to remember is that unless the UK is able to apply the industrial use cases of 5G, it will never be able to realise the full commercial potential of 5G. That is why we continue to invest in research and development with universities across the country.
"There are a lot of policies that need to be discussed to support the industrial transformation. For example, IoT, AI, Big Data and Cloud Computing all have a big role to play in this."
You are going to be delivering a key note address at Connected Britain this year. It’s obviously an extremely busy time for you right now – what are you most looking forward to at Connected Britain 2019?
"First of all, let me say that it is a great honour for us to work with Total Telecom on Connected Britain. We just launched our own advertising campaign, which draws on the theme of Connected Britain, so it ties together nicely.
"Connectivity is important for the British people to enjoy their digital lives. The UK’s fibre to the home deployment is starting to pick up pace and the 4G mobile networks are well established but it is still not enough. We need to do more. It has improved a lot but it is not enough. So, we are really focussed on addressing the future of connected Britain, especially in regards to 5G and fibre rollout.
"Lack of fibre deployment has really affected connectivity in the UK, particularly in rural areas. Also, we must remember that bringing connectivity to hard to reach, rural locations demands a very long investment cycle before an operator will see a return on that investment. So it’s a big challenge.
"We now have options for rural connectivity. We can use fibre, but if there is no fibre in the ground, we can use next generation, microwave spectrum to provide wireless broadband services in a cost-effective manner.
"When we talk about connectivity in the UK, we are not just talking about the city dwellers in London or Edinburgh. We are also talking about the rural communities across the country. We have a responsibility to bring connectivity to them as well. I think the UK has a bright future.
"We want people who live all across the UK to be able to enjoy the benefits that technology brings; whether that is for their business or for things like online shopping and watching 8K UHD TV in their homes. That requires us to implement the new technologies and it requires regulatory support from the government as well."
Victor Zhang will be discussing Huawei’s plans for connectivity in the UK during his key note address at 10:30am on Wednesday 19th June, at Connected Britain 2019. Click here to find out more.