Chinese giant Huawei beat European rivals Nokia Siemens Networks and Ericsson to win VHA’s mammoth network replacement project, the mobile telco said this afternoon — as well as compatriot ZTE — in a hard-fought tender process which lasted throughout most of 2010.
Some had speculated that the deal announced this morning — which will see VHA rip out all of the Ericsson and Nokia-based wireless hardware in thousands of mobile base stations around the nation and replace it with Huawei gear — had come in reaction to VHA’s well-publicised network problems in the closing months of last year, which may still result in a giant class action lawsuit from customers agains the telco.
However, in an interview this afternoon, VHA chief technology officer Michael Young said the deal had been brewing for some time from the middle of last year, and was actually inked “just before Christmas”, when the telco’s network problems made the public eye. “I can see why people would think that — but we don’t sign a few deals based on a few weeks’ work,” he said.
Huawei, he said, had been chosen for the work after VHA went through a small request for information and proposals process with four vendors — the other three being Nokia Siemens Networks and Ericsson, which both have existing relationships with VHA, and Chinese vendor ZTE, which has so far not manifested much of a presence in the Australian market.
Each vendor already provided services to one or both of VHA’s major shareholders, Young said — being Vodafone internationally as well as Hutchison Whumpoa. In the end, Huawei was chosen on technical grounds. “We believe they are the best in the world right now for that technology,” said Young, speaking of the radio access network component of VHA’s network.
Some Australian commentators have consistently attempted to draw links between Huawei and the Chinese military and Communist Party, arguing it’s not appropriate for Australian organisations to use the company’s technology — despite the fact Huawei has existing relationships with most of Australia’s major telcos and some 300 staff in Australia.
But Young said the normal due diligence processes were carried out during the company’s vendor selection process. In fact, the executive noted Huawei’s end user access technology — for example, 3G mobile broadband dongles — were the devices that “everyone’s jumping on” at the moment — with European telcos, for example, adopting the devices.
“We see nothing that concerns us at all about Huawei,” he said.
Building the network
The most recent Australian network construction effort of the scale which VHA revealed this morning is likely to have been Telstra’s construction of its Next G network in 2005 and 2006, which vendor Ericsson has acknowledged took place at a gruelling pace.
Young said VHA had the resources to get its own rollout done over the next 18 months, and would form a joint project team with Huawei for the effort — although “Huawei are going to drive this project”, with the Chinese company planning to hire more than 300 extra permanent local staff to get the job done — and contractors as well.
Incremental network upgrades will also still be going ahead, according to Young. “We’ve separated project from business as usual,” he said.
The rollout will take place in a series of regions which VHA describes as ‘clusters’ — which could be composed of 40 base stations, or as many as 120. The existing hardware will remain operational while the new Huawei hardware is installed — to make sure that there will be no downtime for customers already frustrated with VHA network outages.
The eventual shift to the Long-Term Evolution family of technologies — which will eventually enable peak speeds of up to 150Mbps — will have its own plan integrated into the rollout. For example, Young said VHA was rolling out dark fibre to something like 400 sites — to deal with the demand for increased capacity from basestations.
Young said before the shift to LTE could take place, VHA would need to make sure both the extra capacity in its network and end user devices such as mobile phones and mobile broadband dongles supporting the standard were available.
The news comes just a week after Telstra announced its own shift to the LTE standard would take place in some metropolitan regions by the end of 2011. Optus is also trialling the standard and continuing to invest in its own network — dubbed the Open Network.