Vodafone and BT say removal of Huawei could take five years and cost ‘single figure billions’

A report from the National Cyber Security Centre claimed it can no longer assure the security of Huwawei’s products

Representatives of telecom companies Vodafone and BT have said the removal of Huawei products from their networks could take a minimum of five years, and that the cost of doing so would fall in the “single figure billions”.

The news follows digital secretary Oliver Dowden’s announcement that a report from the National Cyber Security Centre (NCSC), part of GCHQ, revealed it can no longer assure the security of Huawei’s products due to new US sanctions.

Just last week, John Sawyers, former head of MI6, stated that these new sanctions means Huawei’s products were more integrated with the Chinese state now than ever.

In January, Johnson identified Huawei as a “high-risk vendor”, but said it could play a “limited role” in the UK’s move to 5G, meaning that its products would be prohibited from sensitive geographical locations such as nuclear and military sites.

While prime minister Boris Johnson has been urged to ban the company from the UK’s 5G network or risk Commons defeat, BT’s chief technology officer Howard Watson deemed the proposed three-year time frame as “logistically impossible”.

Many fear that the rapid and costly eradication of Huawei’s products could negatively impact the UK’s recovery from COVID-19, since the imposed lockdown restrictions and mass business closures have already ravaged the economy. Recent data from the Office for National Statistics (OfS) showed that the lack of household consumption caused by the lockdown spurred a £9.5bn drop in cash terms – the largest nominal fall on record.

“I am concerned that an ultra-aggressive imposition of a change in policy could hamper our economic [recovery] in the UK,” Andrea Donà, head of networks at Vodafone UK, told UK lawmakers last week.

Speaking to the Commons science and technology committee, Watson also warned that the removal of devices by 2023 could cause network “blackouts”.

“To get zero in a three-year period would literally mean blackouts for customers on 4G and 2G, as well as 5G, throughout the country,” said the CTO.

Donà echoed Watsons concerns, saying that the works conducted on network infrastructure could cause “blackspots”, “sometimes for a couple of days, depending on how big or intrusive the work carried out is”.

Donà told the committee that that Vodafone would need a “sensible time scale” of at least five years to implement further Huawei restrictions, while Watson said that seven years would be the ideal. The CTO noted that BT is already switching some network sites from Huawei to other vendors, but this is no easy feat as its network is currently comprised of two-thirds Huawei and one-third Nokia. Vodafone’s network, on the other hand, is made up of one-third Huawei and two-thirds Ericsson.

The UK government is keen to encourage new entrants into the market to reduce reliance on devices from the Chinese vendor, whose only major competitors in the EU are Ericsson and Nokia.

Samsung, which provides some gear to Hutchison’s Three UK, said it could “definitely” supply a new 5G network, and was in active commercial talks with European operators.

“The one thing that is a challenge for Samsung entering the UK or European market is more related to a request for single RAN technology,” Samsung Executive Vice-president Woojune Kim said, referring to the Radio Access Network which links the core network and devices.

He also said there had been “brutal” competition and some of the contract prices “did not make sense”.

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