Core, edge, access — it’s a confusing world for governments trying to figure out if allowing Huawei to operate in all — or any — of these 5G network domains would be like giving the Chinese equivalent of James Bond the keys to the palace. The muddled response to US entreaties about Chinese’s biggest telecom equipment maker is testament to that confusion.
On the one hand we have the UK, which (apparently) believes that restricting Huawei to the non-core parts of the network would address any security-related concerns. On the other is Australia, which has gone along with the US and decided any 5G role for Huawei would be risky. As key US allies, and members of the Five Eyes spy club (whose other signatories are Canada and New Zealand), both countries are in the Huawei crossfire.
The UK’s greater leniency may be somewhat pragmatic. A ban on Huawei in the core, but not in the radio access network, would have zero impact on UK mobile operators, none of which has made a long-term commitment to Huawei’s core network products. Forcing operators to jettison Huawei’s radio gear would be another matter entirely. BT, Three and Vodafone are all buying and erecting 5G radio equipment from Huawei. Ripping out that equipment could be disruptive and costly. Worse still, operators would have to replace Huawei’s 4G radio gear to guarantee interoperability between 4G and 5G technologies, says Vodafone. In its case, that would mean ditching about 6,000 Huawei basestations.
Really? Very senior and well-respected technology executives at both Ericsson and Nokia insist there are workarounds to ensure their own 5G radio gear can function smoothly with Huawei’s equipment, avoiding the need for a super costly swap-out. What’s more, Three does not seem to think using different 4G and 5G vendors would lead to insurmountable interoperability problems. Having built its 4G radio network with Samsung, it has chosen Huawei as a 5G supplier.
None of this means a radio ban on Huawei is warranted, however, and in other respects the UK’s response seems far more sensible than Australia’s in a world of shrinking supplier options.
Mainstream press reports indicate that Australia’s decision to impose a blanket 5G ban on Huawei is driven by concern that lines between the core and the “edge” — the parts of the network that are closer to customers, which could include the basestations — are blurring. They may be. But that does not mean the distinction between radio gear and the core network is fading.
The confusion relates to the changes in network architecture that may happen as operators build new 5G networks.
In a traditional 4G network, the “core” tends to mean the network functions and IT systems that physically reside (in a hardware sense) in a handful of large data centers. Core has an obvious geographical connotation as something in the middle, and therefore quite separate from the edge.
Authorities are worried about Chinese involvement in these network functions and IT systems because they are where a malicious actor could do the most damage. If these vital systems move to the edge of the network, as they might in future 5G infrastructure, then any 5G products from Huawei could pose a security threat, Australia seems to have decided.
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But the rationale makes little sense. Hosting network functions and IT systems at the edge of the network does not mean they cease to be a part of the core. Indeed, the expression that many technology executives prefer, when describing this edge re-design, is “distributed core,” which must sound oxymoronic to politicians who think in geographical rather than technical terms.
Operators want to overhaul their networks this way for efficiency reasons and to cut latency, a signaling delay that occurs on data networks. Without super-low latency, telcos will not be able to support more demanding applications on their 5G networks, executives fear. Turning a central office into an edge data center, as BT and others intend, could reduce latency by shortening the distance a data signal must travel between the mobile site and the point of Internet access. But it would not transform radios into core network products that could infiltrate important IT systems and cause wreckage like a digital Bond. BT has banned Huawei from any involvement in mobile edge computing, even though it counts the Chinese vendor as one of its main radio suppliers. The UK government appears to have taken note.
Will restricting Huawei to the non-core network counter any threats China might pose? That is another question entirely. Some experts already feel there is far too much focus on network equipment in the debate about security, pointing out that China and Russia have been able to hack networks regardless of the supplier. But arguments about a blurring of the lines between the core and the edge are a flimsy pretext for a comprehensive Huawei ban.