New appointment arrives to clean up Three’s network fiasco

UK telco Three has announced the appointment of Carlo Melis as Chief Network Officer just as the Huawei saga starts to rear its head once again.

Over the course of the last week, the rumour mill has been churning at full capacity, with Huawei’s name popping up on more than one occasion. Prime Minister Boris Johnson is facing a backbencher revolt unless ‘high-risk’ vendors are removed from networks within years, while the National Cyber Security Centre (NCSC) is once again investigating whether the firm is in a sound enough position to work with UK telcos.

One might have said there were better times for Melis to join the business.

Arriving from Wind Tre in Italy, Melis has been working on network resilience during the on-going COVID-19 landscape though eventually his attention will turn to managing the spectrum portfolio and presumably creating a network which can rival market leaders within the UK. Much work has been done in recent years, though thanks to outside influences, Three is still in somewhat of a difficult position.

“Three has been on an incredible journey, completely overhauling its network and IT infrastructure and laying the foundations for a 5G network that will dramatically transform the experience for its customers, at the same time as delivering major 4G improvements,” said Melis.

“I’m looking forward to joining Three, bringing my expertise to build on the great progress already achieved and to deliver a network that will stand the business in good stead long into the future.”

The last few months have certainly been an eclectic mix of ups and downs for the Three business. The fixed wireless access (FWA) proposition and campus network offering was looking healthy before Ros Singleton left the business. These business units are still functional, but look a little weaker without Singleton involved, however it is the more mainstream 5G programme which looks more precarious.

Announced at almost the exact same time as the departure of Phil Sheppard, who was effectively the company’s CTO, was the conclusion of the Supply Chain Review. Huawei was designated a high-risk vendor, and therefore limited to providing a maximum of 35% of a telcos network infrastructure equipment. This is a significant problem for Three which decided Huawei was going to be the sole supplier of RAN equipment for its 5G network.

These are the complications Melis needs to manage over the next few months. Alongside the teething problems of a new cloud core and ensuring the 4G network remains stable during this period of dramatically increased traffic, the 5G deployment strategy needs to be reimagined. Of course, this becomes difficult when even more uncertainty is introduced by rebellious politicians and the NCSC investigation.

It could have been a smoother start for Melis…


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Huawei says US is only hurting itself with sanctions

Speaking at this years’ virtual Huawei Analyst Summit, Rotating Chairman Guo Ping hit back at the US, suggesting it will only do more damage to itself by pursing its current course.

The keynote session from the newly rotated executive was one of defiance as a confident face was put on newly refined aggression from the US. The latest actions to inhibit Huawei’s supply chain will almost certainly have an impact, but it will continue to be a very prominent player in the telco industry.

“We have survived and forged ahead despite all the odds,” Ping said, while also boasting of the $120 billion in revenues achieved in 2019. “The US insists on persistently attacking Huawei, but what will that achieve for the world?”

Ping is referring to additional sanctions placed on Huawei at the end of last week. Announced by Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, the US will prevent any company around the world from using US equipment, IP or software to work with Huawei. The aim is to choke the vendors supply of components and semiconductors, a critical element of smartphones and telecoms base stations.

To mitigate these actions, Ping has said R&D is on the up, to remove dependence on US suppliers, while the business has been stockpiling. But there will be a material impact on operations eventually.

This is a mitigation strategy, softening the blow but it is not a concrete solution. The US semiconductor industry can do want few others can, cultivating specialisms which have taken years to fine tune. This cannot be replicated by China overnight.

“Our business will be inevitably impacted,” said Ping. “But we are confident in finding a solution soon.”

Huawei has consistently stated such actions for the US would be a net loss for the industry, but what is the risk? Ping is pointing towards industry fragmentation.

This is of course a dirty word in the telecoms industry, but Huawei’s warnings should be taken with a pinch of salt. Ping warned of standard fragmentation, which is a long-term risk, but it is not one which is emerging now. The immediate risk is two, independent ecosystems, the creation of two distinct markets. Suppliers would hate this, and there is a chance competition (and therefore prices) would be impacted for telcos.

However, there is not really a risk of standard deviation is the short-term. Like the US, Huawei seems to be playing a bit fast and loose with rhetoric and muddied statements.

Ping also suggested this would be a severe consequence for the US telcos, a lesson which they should have already learned.

According to the executive, during the 2G era US telcos did not align on standards whereas European counterparts did. This offered scaled business opportunity to European suppliers, while the US vendors have to deal with fragmentation. Ultimately, the US has no remaining vendors because of this, while the likes of Ericsson and Nokia have thrived.

This is a mishmash of the truth, half-correct statements, half-informed assumptions and missing information.

Firstly, European telcos backed GSM standards. The fragmentation of standards was not US in-fighting, but a Europe versus North America situation, with Europe winning out. Secondly, yes, US vendors were swallowed up by bigger and more successful rivals, but so were European ones. The likes of Siemens and Alcatel have been acquired during the same period.

The reason there are so few suppliers is because previous generations of bureaucrats embraced market consolidation in a way which would have turned stomachs today.

Should the US continue to pursue Huawei in this manner, it will hurt everyone. It could lead to industry fragmentation, the separation of the East and West into two separate markets and much more isolationist policy making.This will hurt Huawei, it will hurt market competition, it will hurt the telcos, it will hurt US suppliers and it will hurt the industry on the whole.

There might be some inaccuracies here, but the overall message is very relevant; isolationist policy is not the friend of the telecommunications industry.

A look back at the biggest stories this week

Whether it’s important, depressing or just entertaining, the telecoms industry is always one which attracts attention.

Here are the stories we think are worth a second look at this week:


Reports suggest the BT empire is beginning to crumble

No-one in the UK should be in the same league as BT, but poorly executed strategy has kept rivals within touching distance and now the foundations are reportedly being sold off.

Read the full story here


Microsoft doubles down on the telco cloud with Metaswitch acquisition

Don’t say you weren’t warned, telecoms industry. The tech big guns are trained on your home turf and they’re not afraid to splash the cash.

Read the full story here


Huawei threatened to pull investment from Denmark in response to new screening law

The head of Huawei Denmark sent a letter to the Danish Prime Minister indicating it would rethink its involvement with the country if special security requirements were imposed on it.

Read the full story here


Return to work messages start to appear as Twitter hands power to employees

One of the questions which has lingered over the last few weeks is whether the COVID-19 enforced digital transformation will persist in the long-term, though the answer is becoming a bit clearer.

Read the full story here


ETSI gets to work on new contact tracing app standard

With countries across Europe all trying to reinvent the wheel with their own contact tracing apps, standardization is long overdue.

Read the full story here


Reliance Jio signs a third deal to add another $1.5bn to its bank account

Vista Equity Partners has become the third-largest investor in Reliance Platforms, purchasing a 2.32% equity stake in the disruptive business for $1.5 billion.

Read the full story here


 

US targets Huawei semiconductor supply chain as 5G battle continues

With muted success in combating the sustained success of the Huawei juggernaut, the US has revealed its latest offensive play; attack the vendors semiconductor supply chain.

The US Department of Commerce announced new rules on Friday (May 15) designed to cause chaos in Huawei’s operations. The move is likely to douse more petrol on flaming tensions between Washington and Beijing, as the US attempts to inhibit Huawei’s ability to source semiconductor components for various products, including smartphones and base stations.

This latest action could take White House intervention beyond US borders, which would complicate matters for Huawei but also place the US at odds with allies.

“Despite the Entity List actions the Department took last year, Huawei and its foreign affiliates have stepped-up efforts to undermine these national security-based restrictions through an indigenization effort,” said Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross.

“However, that effort is still dependent on US technologies.”

This is the ace card which is held by the US; there probably isn’t a manufacturing site, production facility or office in the world which doesn’t have some form of US technology. The success of the US economy is now a weapon for the political elite; screw us and we’ll mess with your supply chain. It is effectively an economic dirty bomb.

While Huawei might be able to shift its manufacturing capabilities and find new suppliers to replicate the likes of Qorvo or Broadcom, it becomes a lot more difficult to remove every single element of US technology, intellectual property or software from its supply chain. If enforced properly, this could be very damaging to Huawei.

For example, it might shift some of its semiconductor purchasing to an Indian supplier, but if that company uses US software to design elements of the product it is another risk for Huawei as sales to the firm could be blocked by Washington. This is truly a trump card for the US in its continued battle.

The move comes at a time of heightened tension between the US and China which has taken a new twist over the last few months.

President Donald Trump has always found fault with the Chinese, whether it be currency manipulation or making use of Chinese vendor’s products to spy on other nations. This time the coronavirus is taking centre stage, with the US blaming the severity of the pandemic on China’s actions during the first few months, but it of course has nothing to do with the fact the White House ignored the danger of COVID-19 for two months.

The anti-China rhetoric in the US does seem to be heightening. Missouri’s Attorney General Eric Schmitt filed a lawsuit against the Chinese Government in pursuit of compensation from the Chinese Government. There are numerous other lawsuits floating around, including a class action lawsuit from the Berman Law Group which is attempting to claim the Chinese Communist Party is not entitled to immunity as it is not a foreign government or an official agency of the Chinese Government.

Legal experts have suggested these lawsuits will fail, the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act of 1976 states governments cannot be sued, but it can serve as a temperature test for the political administration.

With sentiment once again turning against the Chinese in the US, the White House is effectively being given an endorsement to be combative with the Chinese Government. Unfortunately for Huawei, this could mean the current sanctions enforced to the letter of the law, as well as further actions being taken against the firm in the future.

First the Entity List, now COVID-19, the semiconductor segment is picking up bruises

Having recovered from the impact of Huawei’s entry onto the Entity List, the semiconductor industry has been dealt another blow with COVID-19 impacting supply chains and product launches.

In May 2019, Huawei was added to the US Entity List. This was a nightmare scenario for numerous semiconductor firms, as the worlds’ second most popular smartphone manufacturer faced a significant threat to its existence. Suppliers to Huawei groaned, as their fortunes looked to turn to dust, though this saga was seemingly in the past.

With the US Government continuing to delay the ban on working with Huawei, while also being more generous than previously imagined with exception licences, it might have looked like business as usual. Share prices were slashed in the summer, but seemingly recovered over the latter stages of 2019 only for the coronavirus to threaten the success of the smartphone segment.

Share price is not a perfect measure of success, but it is a pretty accurate one. The table below demonstrates the sorrows of the semiconductor sector quite effectively:

Share Price
Company September 30, 2019 January 3, 2020 Three-month change March 30, 2020 Three-month change
Xilinx 95.90 99.31 +3.56% 77.95 -21.1%
Qualcomm 76.28 87.02 +14.08% 68.74 -20.75%
Micron Technology 42.85 54.53 +27.26% 44.68 -17.78%
Broadcom 276.07 314.19 +13.81% 239.93 -23.56%
Texas Instruments 129.24 127.85 -1.08% 102.98 -19.44%
Taiwan Semiconductor 280 339 +21.07% 267.5 -21.09%
Nvidia 174.07 236.85 +35.62% 261.95 +10.97%
AMD 28.99 48.60 +71.67% 48.27 -0.8%
Analog Devices 111.73 118.31 +5.89% 89.86 -24.01%
ON Semiconductor 19.21 24.69 +28.53% 13.06 -46.78%

NB: Share prices accurate at time of writing (4pm, March 30, 2020)

As you can see from the selection of semiconductor firms above, the only two who have escaped the last three months without too much damage are AMD and Nvidia. These are two companies who serve the gaming segment, which is proving incredibly popular in these times of self-isolation.

This success is of course driven by the continued shipments and sales of products, though as China is reopening, the immediate threat to the supply chain is contained. On the mobile side, the smartphone industry is suffering.

According to Counterpoint Research, smartphone sales across the world fell 14% year-on-year in February, which is not as bad as some may have feared, but no-one can give a definitive answer as to when this outbreak will subside.

In China, offline sales declined by 50% though these numbers were slightly offset by online sales. Overall, sales in China declined by 38% in February year-on-year, perhaps indicating what the rest of the world has to look forward to two to three months deep into the impact of COVID-19.

Looking around the industry, impact to Samsung has been minimal as much of its supply chain remains outside China, but the same cannot be said for its rivals. The Chinese manufacturers would have struggled, though companies like Apple have also suffered. Apple has been relatively quiet so far, though the fact that Foxconn, one of Apple’s most important suppliers, reported a 23.7% fall in profit this week suggests there is less demand from the iGiant.

The next couple of weeks could certainly make a significant dent in the profits of the smartphone industry, and as a result, the semiconductor segment. With the high street closed, supply chains under threat, device launches delayed and consumers spending less under the threat of a recession, the prospects do not look the most attractive.

Coronavirus shuts down Samsung manufacturing site

Having forced the hand of the GSMA to cancel this years’ Barcelona bonanza, the coronavirus is now making itself known in Korea.

While the majority of a Samsung factory is now open, the floor where in infected employee worked will remain closed until the morning of February 25, according to Reuters. The impact should not be too significant to the Samsung business as this site only accounts for a small proportion of the total manufacturing output, it is another example of how the coronavirus outbreak could dent global supply chains.

“The company has placed colleagues who came in contact with the infected employee in self-quarantine and taken steps to have them tested for possible infection,” a spokesperson said.

Samsung might play down the impact of the closure on its business today, though it is also worth bearing in mind the coronavirus outbreak seems to be accelerating in Korea. The South Korean government has put the country on the highest threat level, after the number of cases just to 763 over the weekend.

As it stands, there has seemingly been little material impact to the industry, aside from limitations to travel and cancellations of conferences. Minimised facetime with partners and customers will of course impact business, though should manufacturing sites start to shut down, the consequences could be very expensive.

The telecoms and technology industries are under particular risk, considering the majority of manufacturing activities are concentrated in China.

“In line with recommendations from the Chinese authorities related to the Corona virus, Ericsson’s production and offices in China were closed until 9 February and this will result in limited to no impact on our customers,” an Ericsson spokesperson said.

“We continue to follow the situation and recommendation from the Chinese authorities and WHO [World Health Organisation], as we assess our supply chain.”

Ericsson is one company which is seemingly in a more comfortable position. Some products are manufactured in China, though the company also has sites in Estonia, the US and Brazil. Each of these sites can see production ramped up to compensate for any short-falling elsewhere.

As it stands there are more than 70,000 coronavirus cases in China, though the Hubei province has felt the greatest impact. Xiaomi is one company in the TMT space which has been impacted in a material way, its second headquarters is located in Wuhan, though as much of the telco industry is located in the Guangdong province, supply chain impact has been minimised for the moment.

Huawei is another company which was forced to close its doors in early February, though the company has suggested this was an extended holiday period for employees, and it is now back to 100% manufacturing capability.

“In short, we are doing an industry assessment,” said Ryan Ding, President of Huawei’s carrier business unit. “But we can say, for the next 3-6 months there will not be an impact on our global supply chain.”

Right now, the company has stockpiles of product and components which will ensure there is no complications to supply, both in terms of smartphones and telecoms network infrastructure equipment. As the sites are now functional again, it does look like the most serious consequences can be avoided, though this is based on the presumption the coronavirus outbreak will not continue to escalate.

The immediate risk to the closure of manufacturing sites is an inability to meet demands of customers with products, but also sourcing materials and components. Scarcity of components would only increase the price of products, meaning companies would have to either accept lower profit margins or pass the increased cost onto customers.

While the Chinese companies are the most obvious risk to the global supply chain, let’s not forget China is the manufacturing hub of much of the TMT industry. Ericsson, Nokia and Apple can also trace their supply chain back to Shenzhen. Currently, the delicately balanced supply chains are remaining intact, though this should be viewed as a significant risk to the telecoms industry.

Imagination re-wins Apple as customer

Almost three years ago, Apple decided it could get by without Imagination Technologies as a supplier, but 2020 gets off to a flier for the UK chip firm resigning a licencing agreement.

Details are thin on the ground for the moment, though this completes a very circular story for the Hertfordshire-based company. Imagination Technologies has now confirmed Apple has signed a multi-year agreement to access a “wider range of Imagination’s intellectual property”.

The original deal between the pair was signed in 2014, though it only took three years for Apple to decide it wanted to move operations in-house. This is becoming an increasingly common tactic for the iLeader, the acquisition of Intel’s 5G modem business is another example, though it seems Apple was not able to replicate the success of Imagination Technologies’ graphics cards.

Although Apple is still a highly profitable company, slowing growth and increased costs for the iPhone have presented a problem on the spreadsheets. As a result, CEO Tim Cook has attempted to supercharge the ‘software and services’ division to generate momentum, while bringing more of the supply chain in-house is another way to create efficiencies and profits. Imagination was a victim of the latter.

As a result of losing Apple as a customer, and more than half of the company’s annual revenues which were tied to the firm, Imagination Technologies saw its share price plummet 70% and eventually have to succumb to being sold to Canyon Bridge, a Chinese-backed private equity firm, for £550 million. At the peak of its powers, Imagination Technologies was worth more than £2 billion.

The agreement with Apple comes a month after the launch of the A-Series chipset, which Imagination Technologies CEO Ron Black described as the “most important GPU launch” in 15 years. This is of course little more than posturing from the CEO, though Apple clearly bought into the buzz, that or it figured out that designing and manufacturing GPUs is more difficult than it first thought.

Huawei’s Mate 30 is void of any US components

If the objective of the White House was to destroy Huawei by undermining its supply chain, the strategy is seemingly heading towards failure.

Only a few months after announced it had built a 5G base station without US contributions, Huawei has now stated its latest smartphone is free of US components also. According to device teardown by UBS and Fomalhaut Techno Solutions, originally cited by the Wall Street Journal, Huawei has managed to find supply chain alternatives for every US supplier.

“We would like to continue using American components,” said Huawei Head of Cybersecurity John Suffolk. “It’s good for American industry. It’s good for Huawei. That has been taken out of our hands.”

While some might have been nervous about the Huawei ban when it first emerged out of the Oval Office, some fears may have been lessened today. With Huawei capable of producing smartphone products and 5G base stations without purchasing hardware from US companies, it does appear the economic dirty bomb dropped by the White House will not have the desired impact, as it did on ZTE in 2017.

What is worth noting is that hardware is only half the battle when it comes to delivering consumer experience; the software is equally or more important. Without Google services or the Android operating system, Huawei’s smartphone business is most-likely to see a slow in sales in Western markets.

However, what remains to be seen is whether the devices and base stations are in-line with the high-standards customers, both consumers and telcos, have become used to. Changing the components of a products is highly-likely to impact performance in some manner, though whether this is a material downgrade remains to be seen.

This outcome might irritate the strategists in the White House, though it does appear another plan is currently in the works.

According to two sources, the US Government is considering extending the trade ban. Not only would the new scope include US companies, but also companies who are based in allied countries of the US. This would most likely create a catastrophic impact to Huawei’s business.

What is worth noting is that just because the US wants allies to place trade barriers in-front of Huawei doesn’t mean they actually will. Most US allies have refused to ban Huawei from selling 5G products to telcos, despite pleas, posturing and threats. The huffing and puffing from the White House does not seem to have that much impact on European nations, for example.

President Trump might have spent his first 70 years forcing his will on others in the commercial world, but he has found out Presidents and Prime Ministers of sovereign nations are not as easily swayed by temper tantrums.

US security concerns rubbished by industry and academic feedback

If you thought the UK’s Supply Chain Review was coming to an end, think again as policy makers have been given more food for thought as part of the 5G infrastructure and national security inquiry.

Entitled ‘Ensuring access to ‘safe’ technology’, Parliament’s Joint Committee on the National Security Strategy has opened itself up to public comment. Although it comes as little surprise, the feedback is relatively consistent; let the industry work with Huawei and take a risk-based approach to managing infrastructure and networks.

For those looking across the Atlantic, there might be some hurt feelings. Business and academics from across the UK have largely panned concerns, albeit in very polite wording, suggesting that while there are security standards and regulations to ponder, the US rhetoric is largely not supported by evidence and undermined by its own actions.

Submitted to the inquiry mid-way through last week, the team at Oxford Information Labs makes a very valid point regarding Huawei’s entry onto the Entity List:

“The ban was immediately suspended for 90 days, and that suspension was continued for a further 90 days in August 2019, casting doubt on whether Huawei really did represent an immediate ‘national emergency’ as originally claimed.”

Many might have contemplated this opinion, but few have vocalised it. If Huawei is such a threat to US citizens and business, why has the US Government so easily allowed it to continue to do business within its borders? If the White House propaganda is to be believed, Huawei should be erased from the Land of the Free, though the US Government has continued to validate its presence through the two exemption periods.

There is of course the damage to US businesses to take into account but suspending the enforcement of the ban does undermine the insistence that Huawei is the tip of the Chinese sword.

Another point to consider, which is constantly overlooked, is the depth of evidence to support the wild claims of the White House.

“The US Congress has a long history of making accusations against Huawei, though it has never produced any technical evidence to show that it has undermined the security of its network equipment or that it has impaired the performance of or shutdown networks using its equipment,” said Ewan Sutherland, a telecommunications policy expert from the University of the Witwatersrand.

From a personal perspective, your correspondent feels this is an element of the saga which should be taken very seriously. Due to market consolidation and the intensive R&D demands of 5G, there are already few suppliers for the telcos to consider. If one or two of the major players are to be removed from the supply chain, this is a significant decision to make. Evidence should be at the heart of these actions.

This is an element of the debate which everyone should take into account. Huawei has no material presence in US networks, aside from working with a small number of regionalised players. The US does not have to take an evidence-based approach to banning Huawei, as there is little consequence. Other nations, who have existing relationships with Huawei, must take a much more contemplative approach as there are much more serious implications.

The call for Huawei to be managed as opposed to banned is one which has echoed out of the offices for some time. Vodafone has consistently called for a risk-based approach to procurement, while Three in its evidence to the inquiry has demanded the delay to deployment be minimised. This would appear to be the rational approach, though the UK Government does seem hard-pressed to support it.

This is where the telecommunications industry has backed itself into a corner. In the pursuit of a more cost-efficient supply chain, consolidation has been rife. Alcatel, Lucent, Motorola and Nortel were all victims of the consolidation trends, streamlining the number of suppliers who can offer services to the telcos at scale. Telcos now have to look at Chinese vendors to ensure there is competition.

In an ideal world, the UK or US Government might be able to point to a domestic supplier and suggest more products and services are sourced there. This would allow the Government to have more of a handle on development requirements, and despite the suggestion of a new player emerging, this is unlikely to have any material impact on 5G.

“Perhaps, the United States will push or support the creation of a new manufacturer of RAN, though it would need to be for 6G or 7G, rather than 5G,” said Sutherland.

The likes of Huawei, ZTE, Ericsson and Nokia have been investing in 5G R&D for close to a decade and have already begun 6G investigations. What chance would a new, standalone player have in penetrating this market within the next 10-15 years?

Looking through all the submissions, there seems to be a consensus. There are only three network vendors who can realistically support rapid 5G network deployment at scale, and Huawei happens to be one of them.

Regulators do need to have a much more considered approach to acquisition and mergers in the future, if not for any other reason as to avoid the bureaucratic congestion which we are seeing through this entire Supply Chain Review process.

Another interesting takeaway from the evidence which has been presented, is the desire to remain closely aligned with Europe following Brexit. This should not be considered new either, though perhaps this could build a bridge to repair the damage done by posturing politicians during the Brexit negotiations. Let’s not forget, Europe is the UK’s largest trading partner, and this will not change any time soon; relationships will have to be re-forged following the divorce.

Last week, the European Commission collated all responses from member states into a white paper which said very little which was not already known. 5G presents more of a security threat than generations prior, while state-sponsored attacks are becoming more of a risk. While this might have been seen as busywork, it was a necessary step in the bureaucratic maze to getting something done.

Over the coming months, member states will submit more evidence and recommendations to create what could become a pan-European approach to mitigating risk and rolling out 5G networks. What the submissions are suggesting to the UK Government is that any future proposals on the Isles align as closely as possible to what our European cousins are suggesting. Not only does this provide international consistency, it is a sign of good faith for future trade and political relationships.

Although this is not the end to the protracted evaluation of Huawei and the role of Chinese vendors in the UK network infrastructure segment, it does paint a very strong case for inclusion.

Europe has proven to be a key battle ground in the increasingly fraught conflict between the US and China, and few companies are more exposed to the risk as Huawei. This is a vendor which captures billions in profit in its domestic market, as well as across Asia, though Europe contains a significant number of very prominent customers. However, the trends do seem to be heading the right direction.

Germany has recently said it would not legislate Huawei out of the country, Italy signed a Belt and Road Initiative deal with China in March 2019, Belgium has conducted its own review without consequence to the vendor, while France and the Czech Republic have given warnings but not definitive action. While it is still anyone’s best guess, the UK looks like it is heading towards a risk-based position, potentially enforcing a multi-vendor approach to procurement.

Of course, while logic and behaviour suggest this is the most likely outcome, there is a lot which can go wrong. The UK will have to balance up the impact on existing and potential relationships, especially its standing in the valuable Five Eyes intelligence community.

At some point in the future, the Government is going to have to make a decision. The prolonged review of the supply chain does not sit beside political ambitions for a rapid rollout of 5G or the accelerated timeline for a full-fibre nation. The longer this review takes, the less likely it is the UK will be a major player in the digital economy.

Vodafone searches for supply chain rejig through OpenRAN

Vodafone has announced it will introduce OpenRAN technology in various parts of its UK network, as well as the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and Mozambique.

In what appears to be an effort to break down barriers to work with new vendors, Vodafone will seek to empower the ecosystem through the introduction of commoditised hardware. This is the first trial of the technology in a ‘developed’ market, leaning on trials which have taken place in Turkey and South Africa.

“We are pleased with trials of OpenRAN and are ready to fast track it into Europe as we seek to actively expand our vendor ecosystem,” said Vodafone CEO Nick Read.

“OpenRAN improves the network economics enabling us to reach more people in rural communities and that supports our goal to build digital societies in which no-one is left behind.”

Launched through the Telecom Infra Project (TIP), the OpenRAN initiative aims to build 2G, 3G and 4G RAN solutions based on a general-purpose vendor-neutral hardware and software-defined technology. With vendor-neutral hardware hitting the networks, the aim is to reduce reliance on a small number of vendors, de-couple the hardware and software components of the network more stringently and reduce the vast expenditure made on network infrastructure.

The UK trial will focus on rural locations, perhaps to reduce the exposure of failure. These are also the cell sites which will cost the most and offer the smallest profits. There is a lot to gain here, while the consequence of failure will be limited.

“Encouraging the emergence of new suppliers would give operators greater choice in a far healthier ecosystem,” said Kester Mann of CCS Insight. “Disrupting the status quo could, in particular, make the economics of network deployment stack up in rural areas or hard-to-reach locations, for which roll-out may not currently be viable or cost effective.

“Improving network economics and better monetising infrastructure assets is an important focus of Vodafone CEO Nick Read as the company seeks to achieve ambitious cost-saving targets.”

Like many of the worlds’ telcos, Vodafone is slowing stumbling towards a tricky situation with its supply chain, though many of the issues are outside the control of the company. With Huawei under increasing pressure, the future does look glum for a segment of the ecosystem which is already under-populated.

However, the telcos are not completely blameless in this situation. Investments have been concentrated with the three major vendors in this space (Huawei, Ericsson and Nokia). Through prioritising these companies as primary vendors, challengers have not been given the opportunity to scale and compete. Another complaint levelled at the telcos has been a comprehensive and convoluted procurement process, which has inhibited the ability of smaller players to compete against the status quo.

When the industry is running smoothly, few would have complained with the concentration of investment to a small number of vendors, but there are wrenches being thrown into the works all over the place.

With Huawei potentially facing bans in numerous countries and its supply chain being compromised thanks to the entry onto the US Entity List, a major vendor is under threat. Although Huawei has confirmed it is producing products free of US components, the performance of this equipment is unknown for the moment. Worst-case scenario, the vendor community could become a lot smaller.

Vodafone is one company which does look to be exposed to the Huawei conundrum. UK CTO Scott Petty has said banning Huawei would set the company back two years in its quest for 5G, costing millions as the company would be forced to strip the vendors equipment out of its network. Huawei equipment currently accounts for 32% of the 18,000 base stations around the country, though it has plans to strip Nokia equipment out, with Ericsson taking the rest.

Only working with two suppliers is a precarious situation, though this is compounded when you look at the difficulties Huawei is facing. The introduction of OpenRAN might be considered a bold move, but it is starting to look very necessary to enable access to more vendors.

The trials in the UK, DRC and Mozambique will focus on mobile calls and data services across 2G, 3G and 4G, with 5G possible over OpenRAN in the future. OpenRAN could be debuted elsewhere across Europe dependent on the success of the trials in the UK.

The team have currently identified 100+ rural locations to trial the technology, though this could be expanded in the future. Vodafone has said OpenRAN could reduce network hardware costs by up to a third, but this is dependent on how the technology and supplier ecosystem develops over time. Mavenir, Parallell Wireless and Lime Microsystems are three new suppliers enabled by the trials, though there are a huge number of start-ups who are connected to TIP.

Although this is a small trial for the moment, it is certainly one worth keeping an eye on. Vodafone is in a slightly tricky position when it comes to its supply chain, though should OpenRAN prove to be successful, numerous options could be opened-up. It is a low risk gamble, though the gains of a new supply chain certainly outweigh the consequence of failure.