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.