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While Huawei burns, Ericsson lands plush new O2 contract to help push 5G in Britain

Carrier to use Swedish giant's RAN kit to upgrade 3G/4G sites

Swedish infrastructure giant Ericsson today confirmed a new deal with O2 UK for its RAN equipment, which will be used to upgrade existing 3G/4G sites across the West of England and Wales.

O2 – the sole UK carrier to eschew Huawei's 5G gear – launched its 5G network in October 2019 with service to six cities: London, Edinburgh, Cardiff, Belfast, Slough and Leeds. It has opted for a strategy that mixes equipment from Ericsson and Nokia, deploying them to specific cities.

In this case, the latest influx of Ericsson gear will be used in key marketplaces for O2, including Manchester, Liverpool, and Cardiff.

In a canned statement, Arun Bansal, president of Europe and Latin America at Ericsson, described 5G as instrumental to the UK's post-pandemic economic recovery, as well as its digital future.

Both firms also plan on opening a joint "innovation cluster" as O2 evaluates strategies that'll allow it to move to 5G Standalone, which will purportedly lower operational costs while simultaneously providing lower-latency connections.

This is just the latest win for Ericsson, which has rapidly scored new carrier contracts while simultaneously reversing some gains by Huawei over the past two decades. The Chinese comms bogeyman's future as a network provider in the West remains uncertain, with the latest serving of scepticism coming from NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg.

In an interview with BBC Radio 4's Today show, Stoltenberg said: "China is coming closer to us, we see that in the Arctic, we see they are heavily investing in critical infrastructure in Europe, and we see of course China also operating in cyberspace."

He added: "I trust that the UK government will design their networks in ways that protect the networks and make sure that the UK has secure 5G networks."

Nonetheless, many argue that the UK's current position towards so-called "high-risk vendors" like Huawei is vague.

In an open letter to UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson, HPE's UKIMEA managing director Mark Waters issued stark warnings about how the absence of clarity from government could result in delayed development of Blighty's 5G ecosystem.

"Technological innovations will significantly loosen the dependency on existing major equipment providers but there is a risk that without Government-driven action, 5G adoption will slow as the industry remains unsure whether to stick with traditional suppliers or invest in open platforms. Clarity is needed to ensure that private sector investment continues apace to meet the Government's targets for 5G deployment," said Waters.

These concerns have been echoed by Vodafone CTO Scott Petty, who recently issued stark warnings in the Financial Times that the UK could be disadvantaged in 5G if operators are forced to spend time and money shredding equipment from "high-risk" vendors.

Instead, Petty argued, the government's efforts "should instead be focused on expanding 5G coverage, developing 5G capabilities for UK industry, and investing in the next stage of this important technology."

Of course, Vodafone estimates that it'll cost €200m to toss out its existing Huawei equipment so it's hardly an impartial observer here. ®

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