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Huawei UK obituary is being written as telcos warn of digital blackouts

In evidence presented to the UK Science and Technology Committee, BT and Vodafone execs said completely removing Huawei by 2023 would cause major disruptions, even digital blackouts.

The two telecoms operators, both of which are long-standing customers of Huawei, have warned politicians against hasty decisions. It does appear Huawei is living on borrowed time in the UK, with the framing of questions suggesting a complete removal of ‘high risk vendors’ from telecoms networks is a matter of when not if.

With the line of questioning from the Science and Technology Committee focusing on the potential impact, perhaps the job of the telco executives is to minimise the operational disruption and financial impact of the inevitable.

“It is the last thing we want to be doing in a hurry when we are so dependent on our telecommunications network,” BT CTIO Howard Watson said to the committee.

With Watson being joined by Vodafone UK Head of Networks Andrea Donna in presenting evidence to the Committee, the writing does appear to be on the wall.

The current hearing seems to be an opportunity for politicians to attempt to understand the influence and impact of Huawei on the UK telecoms industry. Questions from Chairman Greg Clarke, Dawn Butler and Carol Monaghan were all geared towards how to effectively manage the transition, while Graham Stringer and Mark Logan focused on whether Samsung could be deemed a viable alternative. For the record, neither Vodafone or BT actually believe it is.

While it is an interpretation of events, it does appear the Huawei presence in the UK is drawing to a close. With US action compromising the vendor’s supply chain and today’s line of questioning, it would surprise few if a decision was taken to phase ‘high risk vendors’ out of UK telecoms networks.

Both Donna and Watson suggested it would take at least five years to remove Huawei from the network entirely without causing material disruption to consumer and enterprise customers.

“Infrastructure deployment by its very nature require multiple years and a quick u turn would undermine the resilience of the network,” Donna said. “What we would be looking at, if there were to be further restrictions, to have a realistic timeframe for us to be able to minimise the impact that a very challenging rip and replace of the existing Huawei equipment would have on the network.”

“It is logistically impossible, I believe, to get to zero in a three-year period,” Watson said. “That would mean blackouts for customers on 4G and 2G, as well as 5G, throughout the country if we were to build that in. We would definitely not recommend to go down that route.”

The issue which is being raised today is the one which had previously been put to bed with the end of the Telecoms Supply Chain Review. The Government decided a 35% limit on ‘high risk vendor’ equipment in the radio access network (RAN) and a complete ban in the core would be sufficient to ensure security and resiliency, whilst also preserving competition. The telcos agreed to this new status quo, however, actions from the US Government has seemingly forced a rethink.

In compromising the semiconductor supply chain of Huawei, questions have been raised as to whether the vendor remains a viable supply for network infrastructure equipment. The National Cyber Security Centre (NCSC) is attempting to understand this impact, which is not a reconsideration of the Telecoms Supply Chain Review, but unless there is zero impact, it will force a rethink on the decision.

Both BT and Vodafone here were calling for a reasonable timeline to remove the equipment. Too short and the result could be major disruptions to service and severe financial strain. Vodafone is suggesting it could cost ‘single digit billions’ while BT has said blackouts would be unavoidable during this timeframe.

To get to 0% exposure to ‘high risk vendors’ in 2-3 years’ time would mean replacing equipment in overlapping cell sites simultaneously. In the urbanised areas, telecoms equipment is housed on top of buildings, which presents a logistical headache for replacing a vendor. If cell sites are down for days at a time while equipment is replaced, being forced to undertake too many projects at the same time would likely cause digital blackouts in some of the urbanised areas.

While Donna and Watson are keen to stress a rushed withdrawal of Huawei equipment would be a net loss for the UK’s digital economy, it does appear the decision has already been made. There will of course be plenty of posturing from the Chinese embassy in response, but we suspect over the coming weeks a new Telecoms Supply Chain Review will be announced, and before too long, a phased plan to reduce exposure to ‘high risk vendors’ down to 0% will emerge.


8 comments

  1. Avatar Jacob Stein 09/07/2020 @ 7:16 pm

    Ahh come off it. Too many projects at the same time – Three are swapping RAN, Core and a massive towers and antennas program. All at the same time. Blackspots – about zero. Someone will complain but the bollox put out by Donna and Watson is just them having a cry. They need to get on with the job.
    Plus they’ll probably land LD’s on any vendor that does cause blackspots so probably manageable from that angle. The real problem is of course financial, in which case earlier is probably better before Santa Claus Sunak stops dishing out billions. They want to get some of that while they can – get in quick chaps!

  2. Avatar Andy Tiller 10/07/2020 @ 2:15 pm

    I’d say the problem is political. The US is forcing China to become independent of US tech, which will ultimately make the world’s nations less interdependent, which will remove one of the key factors underpinning the decades of peace we have enjoyed. All this to avoid the hypothetical conjecture of a potential security threat – not from Huawei but from possible new suppliers they may need, only because the US won’t sell tech to them any more? What kind of logic is that?

    • Avatar Andy Tiller 10/07/2020 @ 3:08 pm

      That was a rhetorical question, of course. (It’s obviously the kind of logic that can somehow get a president elected in the United States.)

    • Avatar ladakhchina 10/07/2020 @ 6:38 pm

      you have correct way to think!huawei do nothing wrong and is big victim!huawei use best technology coz is made by superior chinese race.all stupid foreigner need to know nothing wrong with the huawei.india very stupid in special case.huawei is cheap so we get information advantage from the foreign countries.no problem!ok huawei close to the china govenment so what??all uighur muslim is the terrorist so of course we need the huawei to watch muslim.the uighur muslim all in china so need to behave well.huawei give a big help to this.the china govenment have no problem and all chinese people love it coz they make our superior chinese nation race strong in the world!in 10 year no bt no vidaphone no nokia no erickson only huawei!

      • Avatar Andy Tiller 13/07/2020 @ 3:27 pm

        Umm, that’s not quite what I was thinking. Your views seem rather extreme, @ladakhchina – I suspect you are a bot designed to make us all believe that the Chinese are dangerous extremists.

  3. Avatar Kevin Higgins 11/07/2020 @ 2:26 am

    Huawei were never considered a security threat until the US government realised how technologically behind the 8 ball.
    The UK along with other lap dogs of the USA have effectively agreed to wait 5 years while the USA attempts to catch up, while at the same time agreeing that only the USA is allowed to spy on your communications.

  4. Avatar Terence Nelson 11/07/2020 @ 10:35 am

    One can only hope that the US voters will join the real world and throw Trump out at the next election (one can always dream!) No one seem to be raising the question of the danger of a US technology monopoly – now that would really be dangerous. Still, trying to find politicans with a modicum of common sense is less and less common!

  5. Avatar Ciro 12/07/2020 @ 3:05 pm

    This topic is “as critical as you want to see it”. The United Statians have been spying on everybody for very long time. Now that they believe China could be able to do something similar with Huawei technologies and infrastructure, the United Statians seem to be afraid and try to bring everybody on the same boat.

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