O2’s hidden 5G launch vendor – Huawei

O2 said Nokia and Ericsson are its sole* 5G vendors, but it had live Huawei sites at launch, and there's no confirmed date for a swap out.

Nearly two weeks past its launch date, Telefonica UK (O2) has several live Huawei 5G radio sites providing coverage to London customers, despite listing Nokia and Ericsson as its sole* Radio Access Network (RAN) suppliers.

O2 claims that the sites, perhaps numbering nine or ten based in central London, are left over from a trial that ended in July, and will be swapped out for Nokia kit. It would not provide a time frame for this swapout, nor confirm how many Huawei post-trial sites are currently live.

Trials of 5G RAN equipment from multiple vendors started in January 2019 and finished in July, according to a statement provided by O2 to TMN. The operator announced in July that it had selected Nokia and Ericsson as its 5G RAN suppliers. Commercial operations began in mid-October. Despite that sequence, O2’s commercial launch included live sites from Huawei – three months after the end of the trial.

A detail from a Telefonica network architecture plan for 5G launch showing Huawei 5G NR gNB. (The white blocks are TMN edits)

TMN has seen a diagram that appears to be an internal Telefonica document laying out the operator’s 5G network architecture at launch. It is titled, “eMBB Initial Launch e2e Network Architecture” and the RAN part of the diagram lists three access vendors (Erisson, Huawei, Nokia) in the radio access layer. That suggests that the sites were always intended to form a part of the commercial launch footprint, notwithstanding their origins as trial sites.

We have also been told by one source that O2 requested an update for commercial General Availability software for the sites as recently as three months ago, although we have been unable to confirm that with O2. If true, this request dates to roughly the time that O2 was announcing it was going ahead only with Nokia and Ericsson.

A statement from O2 said, “In London there are currently a very small number of Huawei sites from that trial, which will be replaced with Nokia kit. These Huawei trial sites have a specific agreement in place for software updates.”

The suspicion is that despite O2’s vendor selection the Huawei kit performed better in a crucial market for O2, and that the operator was reluctant at launch to switch off these sites and lose the performance advantage they delivered. According to three sources who have contacted TMN separately, the Huawei sites provided much better functionality and stability than either Ericsson or Nokia’s equipment.

Additionally, mobile network tech blogger Peter Clarke last week tweeted his own tests of Nokia, Ericsson and Huawei sites in central London – and appeared to be the first to note the live Huawei 5G sites in operation. He is another who is clear that the Huawei sites are providing much better performance than their counterparts – in terms of their technical capability and resulting throughputs, availability and responsiveness.

The use of Huawei in 5G networks is a sensitive topic in UK political and security terms, with a parliamentary committee taking answers on the topic as recently as October 10th. However, there is no ban on the use of Huawei in operators’ 5G RANs, and all operators at the moment operate all or part of their 5G RAN using Huawei radios and antennas.

O2’s statement provided to TMN seemed keen to draw attention to O2’s lack of reliance on Huawei – pointing us to a short July 2018 article in which COO Derek McManus said, “We are the least indebted to that vendor of any operator.”

* UPDATE 31 October: O2 has asked TMN to clarify that O2 has never said that Nokia and Ericsson are its sole RAN vendors. Instead it described them in an email reply to TMN as its Primary RAN partners.

While it is true that O2 has not explicitly said that Ericsson and Nokia are its sole vendor partners for its 5G RAN, the clear implication of its public communications has been that these are the only vendors O2 is working with for its 5G RAN.

Previously TMN was told in an email from O2’s PR agency: “We use a mix of vendors in our network and our partners in this space [5G RAN] are Ericsson and Nokia.” O2’s launch press release said, “O2’s 5G network infrastructure is being rolled out in partnership with Ericsson and Nokia, following a competitive tender earlier this year.” 

Nor, as far as TMN is aware, has O2 described Ericsson and Nokia as “Primary RAN Partners” in any official communication, prior to an email sent to TMN yesterday.

Describing Nokia and Ericsson as Primary RAN vendors entails the logical implication that O2 is or will be working with other 5G RAN vendors. O2 has not addressed that point or confirmed if it is currently working with other 5G RAN vendors.

Of course it has stated, as per the story above, that the live Huawei sites it currently has will, at some point, be swapped out for Nokia equipment.