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September 20, 2023
A leaked strategy paper written by the German government suggests fresh restrictions are on the way for Huawei and ZTE within the country’s telecoms networks.
German press, Politico and others have got their hands on the strategy paper, drafted by German officials, which apparently details plans to ban German operators from using Chinese equipment in the core by January 1, 2026, and to phase out reliance on Chinese RAN kit within three years.
According to reports, only 25% of Deutsche Telekom, Telefónica and Vodafone’s RAN systems will be allowed to be based on Chinese kit in five years at the latest, while in the capital Berlin and the greater Cologne-Bonn area, they will need to be completely removed. In addition, it suggests Huawei should be forced to open its technical interfaces for base stations.
This seems to be shift in position from a previous focus on the core. On this point Strand Consult, an analyst firm which has been a keen tracker of story, said: “It is also recognized that the distinction between core network and radio access network (RAN) which was used previously to justify keeping equipment from untrusted vendors in networks, can no longer hold.
“The news declared that the risks of using untrusted vendors like Huawei and ZTE applies to both core and RAN infrastructure. The security risk cannot be isolated by keeping Chinese only in the RAN network for example. Because of the integrated nature of 5G networks, equipment from untrusted vendors poses a risk regardless of where it is in the network, whatever core or RAN.”
The analyst firm went on to highlight some details in the proposals which it finds inconclusive: “The news described that no more than 25 percent of network components should come from Chinese manufacturers in the coming three years. Separately, this provision seemed ambiguous, as it could only apply to network management software. If this is the case, there are likely to be complications in the policy. Strand Consult understands that there are different interpretations to this provision.”
While the security reasons behind a desire to remove Chinese kit (essentially Huawei and ZTE) from western networks has been articulated many times, Germany has been slower than many countries with its ‘rip and replace’ campaigns.
As pointed out by Light Reading earlier this year, an obvious reason for this would seem to be that Germany was relatively early in its 5G rollout and used a heavy amount of Huawei equipment in the process. Indeed, Huawei supplied nearly 60% of Germany’s 5G RAN equipment, according to data from Strand Consult, meaning it was always going to be extremely expensive to scrap it and use alternatives.
Regardless, a firmer crackdown on Huawei and ZTE kit by German authorities doesn’t exactly come as a surprise given the EU’s hardline stance on removing reliance on it for member states, and Germany’s leading position within the bloc.
The rhetoric around the ‘EU toolbox on 5G cybersecurity’ – a set of guidelines adopted in 2020, which encouraged EU member states to assess the security of ‘high risk’ vendors in their networks – was ratcheted up earlier this year to the point where it had morphed into more overt instruction. An announcement stated: “Given the importance of the connectivity infrastructure for the digital economy and dependence of many critical services on 5G networks, Member States should achieve the implementation of the Toolbox without delay.”
In regard to this latest set of suggested restrictions, a ministry official told Politico that the ministry of digital affairs ‘expressed fears that a ban in the form currently being discussed could lead Germany into greater reliance on Huawei’s main rivals, Sweden’s Ericsson and Finland’s Nokia.’
And it seems inevitable that it would, with the main alternative to those two being Open RAN – of which a widespread and rapid adoption would be needed to fit with the stated deadlines to remove existing equipment. Given that Open RAN is relatively new, and still has some technical wrinkles to iron out, that would seem to be a tricky endeavour to say the least.
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