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UK mobile operators warn removing Huawei tech would cost ‘low billions’ and take five years

Vodafone and BT warn parliamentary committee of serious potential effects on cost, network service availability and 5G roll-out of removing Huawei tech from networks

With the clarion call to remove Huawei technology from all parts of the UK’s communications infrastructure growing stronger in political circles, two of the UK’s leading operators have spelt out to a parliamentary committee the huge cost and 5G development trade-offs that such a move would cause.

The use of Huawei kit in the UK’s networks has been a political hot potato since July 2019, when, in its Telecoms supply chain review report, the UK government asked the country’s National Cyber Security Council (NCSC) to consider issuing guidance to UK telecoms operators on companies regarded as posing security and resilience risks to UK networks, with Chinese firms ZTE and Huawei commonly regarded as key examples.

After a long period of wrangling, rumours and high-stakes political lobbying, and much to the relief of the country’s telco community, the UK government decided in January 2020 not to follow the US and Australia in totally banning leading Chinese tech firms from supplying equipment for the UK’s growing 5G infrastructure.

Now, speaking to the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee, Andrea Dona, head of networks at Vodafone UK, and Howard Watson, chief technology and information officer at BT Group, have both warned that to rip out long-established Huawei technology from their networks, from not only from nascent 5G infrastructures but also long-established 4G and 3G nets, would cost both firms sums of money in the small billions.

They added that they would need at least five years to undertake the work in order to avoid potential service blackouts, and not damage both firms’ commitments to further developing a 5G infrastructure across the UK.

Watson said there would definitely be an impact, but that it would be hard to quantify and would come down to the timeframe. “If it’s five years plus, I think we can minimise that [impact] and still keep building 5G for Britain, but anything less than that, we would have to stop doing 5G,” he said.

Asked directly by committee chairman Greg Clark to confirm that this would include remedial work on legacy networks, Watson said: “If we were to be asked to swap out all of Huawei in a period less than five years, we would have to stop.”

Vodafone’s Dona said the minimum period to prevent disruption could be even longer. “We would have to slow down our 5G deployment,” she said. “The reality on the ground is there’s so much physical capability that we can grow upon in the UK in terms of how much of this work can be done, if all the operators were to be asked to swap out in very tight time. So that would put enormous pressure on the workforce that is available in the UK.

“We would need to see how we would commit or augment that workforce with apprenticeships to add more labour and more capabilities to be able to do that. That’s why we’re talking about as a very minimum five, I would say seven years, for something to be impacting our consumers and our businesses.”

The operators’ appearance before the committee came after Huawei vice-president Victor Zhang warned the committee that there would be significant delays in 5G deployment of about 18 to 24 months without Huawei involved. He also repeated remarks made a day earlier warning of the huge financial cost of delays to the roll-out of the broadband infrastructure as a whole. A two-year delay could cost as much as £29bn in terms of lost potential productivity.

Clark asked the executives what they would say to anyone who might be watching the committee session and hear about the prospect of blackouts, billions in costs and delays. He suggested they may say that the operators were saying this because they would rather not take Huawei out of their networks and were exaggerating in some way.

Dona stressed that Vodafone puts customer experience at the front of everything it does. “We want to be able to service our customers during this [potential action]. We need to do it with the right processes, with the right sequence of events and with the right alternatives [to Huawei], with the right capability, and that will require planning.

“If we get given a decision to change and a sufficient plan to do it properly, we will support the UK government decision, we will abide by it. At the same time, we will help the UK economy restart after Covid. And we will ensure the minimum disruption to our customers while we do so. If the timescales are too short, the impact will be inevitable and the costs will be high.”

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Asked by Clark whether his and Dona’s statements and “bleak prospects” were not an exaggeration, and that they could be documented and were objective facts that ought to be taken into account, Watson agreed with Dona and reminded Clark that evidence backing up the claims had been given to the supply chain review of 2019.

Clark asked whether BT and Vodafone had contributed to the problem that the UK telecoms industry faced by choosing two technology partners – Huawei and Ericsson in the case of BT and Huawei and Nokia in the case of Vodafone – in the roll-out of 5G networks. He asked whether the problem was not just a lack of diversity, but also the operators’ procurement practices and whether they could have anticipated the public interest concerns that are now having to be contemplated.

Watson offered an insight into the realities of managing technology supplier relationships for operators such as BT. “Operating a network perspective, actually having more than two suppliers across the 19,000 cell sites that I have, and now we’re considering introducing a third to manage this through, that’s quite an operational burden on our ability to maintain that network because it means we’ve got three lots of kit that needs to be accompanying every engineer as they maintain that network,” he said.

“So diversity of choice is really important. And then making the right operational decisions, to have limits of deployment, is also quite critical. That’s the balance that we always face.”

Dona told the committee that Vodafone had consulted closely with the NCSC about suppliers. “In the choices that we make, we seek advice on network architecture, we’re actively engaged [with the UK government],” she said. “Our procurement process strikes the balance between technological advancement, the roadmap that the vendor brings, and the future capabilities introduced that benefits our customers.

“Huawei has been a partner of ours over the years because of the technological roadmap it has delivered, because of the technological advancement it brings. In all the benchmarks it has conducted internationally, Huawei has fared very well compared to other vendors. That’s the reason we chose them – because they bring good technology that has benefited our customers and benefited the UK economy so far, but they’ve also provided good value for money and a good customer experience.”

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