Huawei presses on in Europe

European ambitions remain. But retains caution around open and disaggregated RAN.

What do you know about Huawei’s European wireless network activities? Probably that, much as Huawei might protest to the contrary, explicit and de facto government restrictions mean that the scale of its continued presence on the continent as a supplier of 4G and 5G radio access networks is in doubt.

But is that the whole story? Certainly there are signs that Huawei wants to keep talking about Europe.  Reuters reported recently that Vodafone Italy had conditional approval to use Huawei in its 5G network. A few weeks ago it “reached out” with a prepared storyline on its wireless network capabilities and the priorities of its customers, part of which was to highlight its ongoing work in European markets, including a 5G trial in the UK.

If you want to read that storyline then we can point you to this bylined Q&A that covers off Huawei’s priorities. TMN too was offered this pitch as well as the chance of a live interview with Huawei’s Director of European Product Management, Ray Williamson.

Williamson, engaging and well-known in European mobile network circles, is something of an old Huawei hand by now. So we took the interview option, to which he kindly agreed. He worked through his grid. Operators, he said, are moving from initial 5G rollouts to deepen capacity and to widen true nationwide coverage. A key aspect has been to develop solutions that make site builds simpler and more efficient. Enterprise and private networks are on the up, with many trials and pilots ongoing – including a 5G private networks trial with Cambridge Wireless.

But we also touched on how Huawei views the move to virtual RAN, to disaggregated and Open RAN, and how it continues to engage with its European customers.

First, site design and the solutions that go towards what Huawei calls Simple Site, part of its “1 + N” strategy. These are solutions designed to meet site limitations – 30% of the sites in Europe can only have one antenna per sector, and must be under two meters long in major cities – but also enable simpler installation and operations.

An example is the 64T Blade AAU Pro (AAU = Active Antenna Unit). Here Williamson calls out materials science that gives Huawei its own take on interleaved antenna designs that integrate active and passive antennas in the same box. It is this design that Huawei took below 20kg – as reported by TMN at the time.

Williamson says that as operators develop coverage, Massive MIMO will have an important role to play.

“Massive MIMO is very important for 5G, it helps extend coverage by using beam forming, improves capacity and in turn that brings down cost per bit. But towers and rooftops are always very busy so we have to integrate active and passive antennas. There’s been a huge amount of work in getting the form factor down. We have developed new materials that allow us to put the active AAU directly behind the passive unit. We refer to it as see-through technology, with the AAU transmitting through the passive unit.

“We also made the dipoles more internally integrated – removing a lot of the cabling – reduced the number of PCBs and also developed new materials for filters to bring the weight down considerably as well.”

Williamson said that Huawei’s design is different from other interleaved antennas that use filters and cloaking to create band passes through the passive antennas that site in front of the active array.

“I can’t go into too much detail but we have changed the materials so they don’t cause interference as they pass one through another. So it is transmitting through, with a complete overlap. Probably the result is similar other interleaved options, but it’s a different way of doing it.”

Cloud RAN and the like:

Unless you’ve had your head in a ditch (and frankly who could blame you for that given the past year or so we’ve all had), you’ll have noted that Open RAN, vRAN and the general area of disaggregated networks have been very noisy topics in the industry. Some of this has been driven by Government pressure to see more vendor diversification in RAN networks in particular. There is also a push from operators who want to take advantage of business models that can exploit the network as an open platform.  To do that requires an open, disaggregated network that makes it easier to mix and match hardware and software vendors, plugging in best of breed solutions on a use case basis.

Huawei, as one of the integrated players, has not been playing. Is this changing?

We are struggling to see the advantages

Williamson says that he doesn’t see Cloud RAN making too many inroads in European markets where there is not the same amount of fibre as in Japan, South Korea and China.

“In Europe we are still using a lot of microwave, so I don’t see big changes in network architecture in the next few years, up to 2025 and beyond. Those next few years will be more focused on rolling out nationwide and developing those vertical markets. I don’t think we will see a big architectural change in the next three to four years.”

As for virtualisation and vRAN, and the move to disaggregation, Williamson said that the tangible benefits are still unclear.

“Virtualisation itself we did on the core five or six years ago and also on some things like the CU. So we have dabbled with it to try to prove the benefits. Then with the move from virtualisation to disaggregation – again we are not really clear on what the key value is. Can it reduce TCO, make my networks more efficient, more green, reduce time to market and increase service innovation?

“We are struggling to see the advantages, and we can still see that S-RAN has a leadership factor over those virtualised technologies at the moment.”

Turning also to Open RAN, Williamson conceded that it is “starting to enter the implementation level of detail which is interesting.”

But here also he noted that working in an open way means a loss of overall control and co-ordination.

“When you get into the RAN we think [openness] will probably slow down RAN innovation because you need to be able to press both sides of the lever to really move things forward. You need to change things on the radio and on the baseband, and if you do that in a co-ordinated fashion you can do some rapid innovation. If you need to depend upon a third party to keep pace with you and balance your ideas we think it will slow down innovation and reduce performance on the network. That’s why we are a bit hesitant, shall we say, but we are watching very closely.”

European markets

And so we come to the aspect that many will be intrigued by. If you are heading up Huawei’s European product management, what does that look like at a time when the public perception is that opportunities have been closing off?

Williamson does grant that things are tough in certain markets, but he is far from conceding that’s the case across the continent.

“There’s a few markets where we are not progressing much in 5G, obviously the UK is one, but I think in most of our markets we are still working very closely with most of our customers on their evolution steps and how they want to advance.

“So again we keep working with these customers as we need to. We want to continue to roll out 5G and we’ll go through any additional process to make that happen. There’s additional red tape in some markets that we will deal with, and we’ll work on supporting those customers as best we can.”

Huawei itself will point out that operators can implement the EU Security Toolbox and work with Huawei whilst staying within government restrictions. It’s a positive spin on a situation where many doors are shutting, and where others are being shrouded in red tape. For now though, the message from Huawei, at least for public consumption, is that is presses on.