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Vodafone holds off deploying Huawei in core network due to security row

FILE PHOTO: The Vodafone logo is seen at the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona, Spain, February 28, 2018. REUTERS/Sergio Perez/File Photo

By Paul Sandle

LONDON (Reuters) - Vodafone, the world's second largest mobile operator, said it was "pausing" the deployment of Huawei equipment in its core networks until Western governments give the Chinese firm full security clearance.

The United States and some allies, including Australia and New Zealand, have banned Huawei from 5G networks because of alleged ties to the Chinese government, while the firm has denied that its technology could be used by Beijing for spying.

Vodafone's Chief Executive Nick Read said on Friday after reporting third-quarter results that the debate was playing out at a "too simplistic level", adding that Huawei was an important player in an equipment market which it dominates along with Ericsson Sweden's Ericsson and Nokia.

"We have decided to pause further Huawei in our core whilst we engage with the various agencies and governments and Huawei just to finalize the situation, of which I feel Huawei is really open and working hard," Read said.

Poland is set to exclude Huawei from 5G after it arrested a Huawei executive earlier this month on spying allegations. Huawei fired the man, who has denied wrongdoing.

Europe's mobile industry would face higher costs and delays to faster networks if authorities imposed a blanket ban on Huawei equipment, particularly the radio technology deployed on mobile towers, Vodafone's Read said.

Operators in Europe such as BT and Orange, have already removed Huawei's equipment or taken steps to limit its future use.

Read said Huawei's equipment was used in Vodafone's core - which he described as the intelligent part of the network - in Spain and some other smaller markets.

European governments and security agencies had not pressurized Vodafone into taking the step, but the "noise level" had increased, and the debate now needed more facts, Read said, adding that governments in Africa and the Middle East, where Vodafone also uses Huawei, had not raised concerns.

A spokesman for Huawei, which become the world's biggest telecoms equipment maker earlier this decade despite being shut out of the U.S. market, said it had been a long-term strategic partner to Vodafone since 2007.

"Huawei is focused on supporting Vodafone's 5G network rollouts, of which the core is a small proportion. We are grateful to Vodafone for its support of Huawei and we will endeavor to live up to the trust placed in us," he said.

However, Read said that Vodafone had already agreed terms with a range of 5G suppliers, so moving away from Huawei in parts of the roll-out would not incur additional costs.


TOUGH END TO YEAR

Shares in Vodafone fell after it reported a deterioration in its key revenue measure in the third quarter, down 40 basis points quarter-on-quarter to 0.1 percent, reflecting price competition in Spain and Italy and a slowdown in South Africa.

Analysts had expected growth of 0.3 percent and the stock fell to its lowest level since July 2010 after the update, trading down 2.9 percent at 140 pence at 1245 GMT.

Vodafone said, however, that competition in the Spanish and Italian markets had moderated through the quarter and it improved its level of churn, or the number of customers leaving, by two percentage points year-on-year.

The company's Chief Financial Officer Margherita Della Valle said the performance improvements would start to show in the top line after the current quarter.

"We expect as we enter into the next fiscal year to start seeing the benefits in terms of revenue growth," she said.

Analysts at UBS said Vodafone performed well in net adds and churn across Europe, but they expected fourth quarter service revenue to drop to –0.5 percent, driven by weakness in Spain and tougher comparatives in Britain.

"This is disappointing relative to prior comments that service revenues would be similar to the +0.5 percent seen in Q2," they said.

Vodafone's reiterated its guidance for this year of around 3 percent growth in underlying adjusted core earnings, with free cash flow before spectrum costs of about 5.4 billion euros.


(Editing by Kate Holton and Alexander Smith)