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BT and Vodafone Seek 5-7 Years to Pull Huawei or Risk Blackouts UPDATE

Thursday, July 9th, 2020 (2:55 pm) - Score 5,782
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Senior broadband and mobile figures from UK telecoms giants BT and Vodafone have today warned cross-party MPs on the Science and Technology Committee that they’d need at least 5-7 years to fully remove Huawei’s kit from their networks, or “blackouts” could be a risk. The cost may also rise into the billions.

As most people know there is currently a heated debate (again) around the future of Huawei in the UK. The Government’s adopted position, as of January 2020 (here), banned operators from installing Huawei’s kit in the sensitive core part of their networks, but allowed its continued use in non-core parts (e.g. 5G antennas, FTTC cabinets, FTTP ONTs etc.). A cap of 35% was also placed on the company’s kit to ensure that operators made use of other suppliers (BT alone forecast a £500m hit from this over the next 5 years).

Since then several key events have occurred, which recently prompted the Government to launch an urgent review of its position. Firstly, the USA has continued to tighten its restrictions against Huawei and, as a result, there are now concerns that this may result in the company being forced to adopt less trustworthy components into their hardware. Meanwhile Huawei claims its too early to make that judgement.

On top of that the COVID-19 crisis and the situation in Hong Kong have both resulted in a growing number of MPs demanding that the UK take a tougher line toward China. Lest we also forget that the UK and USA are also involved in sensitive post-Brexit trade talks, as well as the USA’s own on-going trade talks with China, which adds another complex political dynamic.

Back in May 2020 the Government was widely reported to be considering a U-turn over their January decision, which could reportedly impose a complete BAN against kit from Huawei by 2023. But that would have also meant ripping out all of their existing kit in a very short space of time, which seems likely to be both practically and economically unworkable.

Risk of Blackouts

Both BT and Vodafone make heavy use of Huawei’s equipment and, following the January decision, are already in the process of reducing that further through the wider adoption of new or existing suppliers (e.g. Huawei, ADTRAN, Nokia, Ericsson etc.). As such their feedback to today’s committee event in the House of Commons (Parliament) has helped to reflect their position on the latest development.

According to Lightreading, Vodafone’s Head of Network, Andrea Dona, said a “minimum” transition period of 5 years is required and the cost of completely removing Huawei’s kit would grow from hundreds of millions to the low single-digit “billions“. Andrea added that trying to meet a shorter deadline, such as 2023, was likely to result in sporadic losses of service.

Meanwhile BT’s CTO and CIO, Howard Watson, largely agreed with Andrea but suggested that a 7 year time-frame would be more realistic. “It is logistically impossible to get to zero in three years … that would mean blackouts for customers. We would not recommend going down that route,” said Howard. BT said completely removing Huawei would add “tens to hundreds” of millions to its current cost expectation of c.£500m.

Forcing engineers to focus on ripping out existing equipment in a shorter time-frame would also take significant resources away from other projects, such as the on-going deployment of gigabit-capable broadband services (i.e. delays). “To take [it] all out would require multiple sites to be turned off for at least a day and sometimes two days. We would need to close streets, bring in cranes. That is logistically not practical in … three years,” added Watson.

The current expectation is that the Government, having recognised this reality, may now take a softer approach and simply order telecoms operators to stop installing new Huawei kit by a certain date, albeit while giving them a much longer window to retire their existing equipment as it reaches a more natural end-of-life. Other reports indicate that BT and Vodafone have also been told by the Government to stockpile Huawei’s kit ahead of such a policy shift.

UPDATE 13th July 2020

Apparently, the above comments from BT and Vodafone were only made in reference to 4G and 5G mobile networks, which didn’t consider fixed line broadband and phone etc. BT’s CEO, Philip Jansen, has now suggested it would be “impossible” to totally removed Huawei’s kit from everywhere in under 10 years.

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Mark Jackson
By Mark Jackson
Mark is a professional technology writer, IT consultant and computer engineer from Dorset (England), he also founded ISPreview in 1999 and enjoys analysing the latest telecoms and broadband developments. Find me on Twitter, , Facebook and Linkedin.
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16 Responses
  1. Avatar joe says:

    ‘low single-digit “billions“’ seems higher than any prior estimates I’ve seen. Like to see the numbers on that…

    Agree that “simply order telecoms operators to stop installing new Huawei kit by a certain date” is the only sane route. Can’t see they can’t get that through parliament

    1. Avatar CarlT says:

      Can’t help but notice use of ‘sane route’ in relation to Parliament. There are about enough mentalists on the Tory benches that I could see voting against that. Given their voting records on other things sanity isn’t a big priority for them.

    2. Mark Jackson Mark Jackson says:

      In fairness you can find mentalists in all of the main parties, albeit somewhat subject to different electorate viewpoints on certain issues.

  2. Avatar John H says:

    Amongst other issues is that Huawei have lost access to certain US made chips and do not yet have alternative chips to use. So regardless of the security issues if their kit fails and needs replacing Huawei are going to struggle. BT and Vodafone do not have 5 years to spare regardless of Govt rules.

  3. Avatar Paul says:

    Why so much focus on mobile, when Openreach use Huawei FTTC Cabinets for the majority of BDUK work.

    And what about the equipment in the exchanges?

    What’s likely to happen to these assets?

    1. Avatar John says:

      The focus is on the mobile 5G network because most of it isn’t built yet.

      They don’t want to have to rip out 10,000’s of street cabinet DSLAM’s and all the exchange equipment that’s already in place on the fixed line network so they will probably keep the focus away from that.

      Huawei is currently the only Vendor for OpenReach FTTC.
      Every DSLAM currently deployed is Huawei.
      They are actually replacing some of the ECI telecom kit (the other FTTC vendor whose DSLAM’s are no longer deployed) with Huawei kit.

      I’d be (very) surprised if they went was far as touching the fixed line (FTTC, G.Fast & FTTP) Huawei equipment within OpenReach’s network.

      They may stop using Huawei on the FTTP rollout but I can’t see them removing what’s in place already.

      They have 2 other vendors for FTTP in place already (Nokia and ADTRAN) but Huawei remains their only FTTC Vendor.

      The cost and time to remove ALL the Huawei fixed line equipment is eye watering.
      It’s not seen as a big security risk either.

    2. Avatar JP says:

      Could it be that FTTC is done for then?

      I’d immaging if gov wants gigabit capability that it is.

    3. Avatar JP says:

      Sorry my literacy seems to have escaped me above!

    4. Avatar Mr B Simpson says:

      I know they all do in 2008 the free BB was on the back of reverse engineering msam and dslam cards there much lower grade that cisco. Our greed is our downfall China has been date coping so much information

  4. Avatar David Shepherd says:

    Make friends and forge strong links with China. Through a stronger association with China work to resolve their issues with their people’s. Make friends not War.

    1. Avatar Buggerlugz says:

      Honestly David, are you for real, or was that sarcasm?

      Regardless of any “supposed security risk”, or the difficulties around U.S. chip manufacturers being stopped from supplying Huawei, if this is one way we can make the government in China pay for millions of dead around the world, then I’m for it. There needs to be a reckoning.

      #BoycottChina

    2. Avatar John H says:

      That was the whole purpose of allowing them into the WTO by Clinton in 1999 ie allow the Chinese access to the West and they will also embrace Western democracy, its plainly not worked and needs a new approach.

  5. Avatar James says:

    What the hate against china they are amazing the west are lazy and bone lazy in manufacturing.

    1. Avatar Stuart says:

      We lost manufacturing to China because we can’t compete, as China use slave labour.

  6. Avatar Mr Maurice McPhillimey says:

    I’m ashamed by the comments on here, most are of a hate America or more like a Hate Trump mentality. Your all single minded by your blinkered view towards everything else, which is to total ignore all other facts. I’m one who believes that far too much control of all our Communications, have been handed over to the Chinese. Without anyone stopping to see how much control we have been given to them. We knew that the Americans where refusing to accept Huawei right from the start, so why did we accept it knowing we will not be able to Communicate to them once all has been changed over… Now we will have to pay for it…

    1. Avatar John says:

      I couldn’t care less where the kit is made.

      Huawei has been an excellent Vendor for OpenReach.
      Their kit is cheap, performs well and has been capable of numerous upgrades over many years.

      They have designed and manufactured kit to OpenReach’s required spec, helping to overcome issues caused by their other telecom supplier, from Israel.

      I’ll take the working kit from China over the duff equipment from Israel everyday of the week.

      Trump is an idiot. A right wing fascist. The biggest mistake any country has ever made.
      Frankly it’s a shame his father never pulled out, the world would be a better place.

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