Thursday 9 July 2020 1:54 pm

Vodafone and BT warn it may take five years and cost 'billions' to scrap Huawei

Vodafone and BT have warned that it may take at least five years and cost “billions” of pounds to strip Huawei equipment from UK networks, as Prime Minister Boris Johnson faces mounting pressure to scrap a deal with the Chinese vendor over security concerns.

Vodafone UK’s head of networks, Andrea Dona, today told the government’s science and technology committee that the operator needed to have a “sensible time scale” of at least five years to transition its network away from dependence on Huawei. 

Read more: Vodafone lashes out over UK’s Huawei doubts

She added it would cost the British mobile firm “single-figure billions” if it was forced to switch Huawei telecoms kit for another vendor’s.

BT said that it may take even longer for it to strip its network of Huawei technology, giving an “ideal” time frame of up to seven years.

Chief technology officer Howard Watson said BT was already trialing a move for some of its network sites from Huawei to other vendors. 

However, he warned that being forced to scrap the Chinese vendor without sufficient time would lead to blackouts for UK customers.

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

Johnson signed a contract with Huawei earlier this year to build 35 per cent of the UK’s 5G infrastructure, but a group of 60 rebel Tory MPs have since warned that the introduction of US sanctions on the vendor could have a significant impact on its ability to securely supply crucial equipment. 

In May, the US imposed new sanctions on Huawei which reduced the company’s ability to use American-made chips in its telecom products.

US President Donald Trump has repeatedly warned that technology made by the Chinese telecoms firm could be used by Beijing for spying. Huawei has stringently denied the claims.

The National Cyber Security Centre, a branch of GCHQ, is now reviewing the role Huawei should play in the UK’s telecom networks following pressure from both sides of the Atlantic. 

A spokesperson for Huawei told the science and technology committee it was too early to assess the impact the sanctions will have on its operations.

Johnson is expected to make a decision on whether to further restrict the company’s presence in the UK by the end of the month.

Huawei has urged the PM to take more time to assess the deal.

“There isn’t a burning bridge,” said Huawei’s UK vice president Jeremy Thompson in the committee meeting today.

Last week, the PM vowed to protect Britain from “hostile state vendors,” while culture secretary Oliver Dowden said US sanctions were “likely” to have an impact on Huawei’s viability as a 5G supplier.

Discussions over Huawei’s role in the UK have become further tangled by China’s implementation of a new security law in Hong Kong that hands Beijing sweeping powers over the city.

A long list of global tech giants including Tiktok and Twitter have subsequently paused operations in Hong Kong, amid concerns the new security measures will restrict the freedoms of Hong Kong citizens.

Read more: Vodafone lashes out over UK’s Huawei doubts

Conservative MP Bob Seely last week told City A.M: “We need to be supportive of trade with China, but we need to be mindful that China is becoming more adversarial, and more communist, to be frank. We can’t just have business as usual, that would be unethical.”

Fellow Tory MP Damian Green told City A.M. that “the chances of keeping Huawei out of 5G are getting stronger by the week”.

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