Appeals from Huawei’s Victor Zhang and the CTOs of Vodafone and BT were not enough to dissuade the committee from ending Huawei’s mission of helping build 5G networks in the UK
Huawei’s fate seems to have been sealed the week before the official announcement that its equipment was to be removed from UK networks by the end of 2027.
A Parliamentary Science and Technology Committee hearing chaired by ex-Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Greg Clark closely interrogated Vodafone head of networks Andrea Dona and BT chief technology officer Howard Watson.
Some of the UK’s operators had been concerned that a full removal of Huawei equipment would be required within three years. Dona and Watson said that time frame would be highly disruptive and warned of “signal blackouts” for its customers.
Both men were clear when speaking to the Parliamentary Committee that the UK would need “at least five years, maybe seven” to fully remove Huawei’s 5G equipment.
And so it came to pass with the official announcement of Huawei’s ban: the networks would have their seven years. In the end, the verdict represents a compromise for the operators.
The decision comes after Prime Minister Boris Johnson had initially given the go-ahead for Huawei to play a role in the non-core area of UK operators’ 5G networks, with the vendor’s equipment capped at a market share of 35 per cent in networks.
While both Vodafone and BT will be somewhat relieved about the timescale, the cost to remove the kit will be a headache.
Prior to the all-important decision, Dona told the committee: “If the current guidance were to be tightened, we would need to spend billions to change our current infrastructure.”
When asked further, Dona said it would cost Vodafone “single figure billions”.
“When considering further restrictions we need to look at a sensible and practically feasible timescale, as it will take several years to minimalise the disruption it will have on our business and customers,” he said.
“Infrastructure deployment requires multiple years and a quick U-turn change in decisions would undermine the resilience of the networks.”
When asked about the potential impact of a swift removal within two to three years, Dona was quick to shut this down as an option – though he pointed out that Vodafone doesn’t use Huawei within any of its core network.
“It would be highly disruptive for our customers and their businesses,” he said. “The swap involves taking out the equipment at a mast and switching off signals at these masts.”
He said this would mean the service is then down in that area, with customers losing their signal – and that this could sometimes last a couple of days, depending on how difficult the job is.
Watson, meanwhile, pleaded for more time while giving evidence to the Parliamentary Committee.
“The ban on using our core networks and the 35 per cent limit in the access networks is hugely challenging and costly to BT. I believe it is logistically impossible to get to zero in a three-year period.
“To take the whole network out would require multiple sites to be off at the same time for at least a day and sometimes more.
“Take London, for example: it’s mainly served by equipment on rooftops and to get to these would require us to bring in cranes. That is logistically not practical in the timeframe of three years that has been discussed.”
Although the fate of Huawei has finally been confirmed, the vendor did its best to convince the panel to take a different tack at the eleventh hour talks.
Huawei’s UK vice president and chief representative Victor Zhang and UK vice president Jeremy Thompson moved to assure the Committee that Huawei is not a security threat.
Zhang referred to the US sanctions as “unjustified” while defending Huawei’s position, and explained that it would take a number of years to know the long-term impacts of a ban in the UK.
Zhang argued that Huawei has cooperated fully with the UK in giving assurances over its security and cites the vendor’s establishment of a cybersecurity facility in the UK.
“We’ve been open with the UK government to address any security concerns,” he said. “We established a cybersecurity centre to show Huawei’s transparency.
“We don’t hide anything, and can provide all our software and hardware to this centre to be evaluated by the highest-level experts.”
In response to being asked why this was necessary for Huawei when no other vendors had done similar in the UK, Zhang replied: “We were told cybersecurity was a big challenge by the UK government.”
Thompson also rejected any idea that Huawei was a “high-risk vendor”.
“We don’t like the term ‘high-risk’ vendor. When we came into the UK initially, we had no market share and were seen as high-risk at that time,” he said.
“Since then, we’ve contributed towards the UK’s networks and helped increase the bandwidth available to the fixed-line network. We’ve also reduced costs by a third. Those are some of our contributions to the UK.”
Zhang provided assurances that there would not be an immediate effect on network service in the country.
“In the short term, there’s no impact to the UK’s 5G rollout. We have prepared for five years to make sure the UK’s existing network is not impacted,” he said.
The decision on Huawei’s removal from the country’s 5G infrastructure will no doubt give Vodafone and BT a lot of work to do, although neither operator relies solely on that vendor for the technology.
At the Committee meeting, Dona talked about the make-up of Vodafone’s network infrastructure, which also uses Ericsson equipment.
“Vodafone UK uses Ericsson and Huawei. A third of our 2G, 3G and 4G network is with Huawei, while the rest is with Ericsson.
“We also use both for 5G. This split is commercially sensitive, but Huawei is not used in the core part of the network.”
When asked why this information was commercially sensitive, Dona said that “releasing any numbers could give our competitors an advantage”.
Watson was slightly more frank when asked about the impact on BT, saying that most of the company’s 5G infrastructure is provided by Huawei.
“The majority of our current 5G deployment is on the Huawei network,” he said.
“In the core we use both Ericsson and Huawei, but are in the process of removing Huawei the core of our mobile network in line with government policy.”
Watson also gave a breakdown on BT’s infrastructure providers for its other networks.
“We have two vendors in our radio access network: Huawei and Nokia,” he said. “We use Huawei for 2G, 4G and 5G, and Nokia for 2G, 3G, 4G and 5G.
The split between them (excluding 3G, which is exclusively Nokia) is that two- thirds of 2G and 4G is Huawei and the rest is Nokia.”
Meanwhile, the potential for another vendor to come in and replace Huawei was entertained during the meeting.
Samsung, in particular, has been earmarked as an alternative, with executive vice president Woojune Kim doing his best to throw the Korean vendor’s hat into the ring.
Kim outlined Samsung’s performance in the UK as an infrastructure vendor, but acknowledged that its presence is significantly lower than that of some of its competitors.
“We are already part of the UK networks through Three UK (Hutchison) and have supplied them with 12,000 base stations over the last five years.
“We’re trying to expand into the UK market as we get into 5G and it’s not easy, but we are working on this. Samsung always looks for commercial opportunities.”
Kim says that Samsung has around 10 per cent of the worldwide market for network infrastructure, with the vendor particularly prominent in Korea, Japan and the US.
But he says that one challenge for the company is that it is reluctant to invest in legacy 2G and 3G technology.
“This is a burden in many ways to take on, as in many ways it’s a dying technology,” said Kim. “We prefer to invest in forward- thinking technology such as 4G, 5G and 6G.”
He added: “The Korean, Japanese and US operators have been very clear in looking to invest in newer technology rather than legacy technology. That is the difference between those markets and what has happened in Europe and the UK.”
Because of Samsung’s reluctance to invest in legacy networks, BT and Vodafone avoided mentioning the vendor as an alternative when asked.
“What a lot of people don’t realise is that 2G is still used while making voice calls.
My view right now is that for a replacement technology today, 2G has to be a critical part of that solution,” said Watson.
Dona adds: “We cannot ignore the fact that a lot of our customers are business customers that rely on 2G and 3G technology, and their devices are only enabled to meet these networks.
“The transition to full-blown 4G and 5G has to go hand in glove with our commercial colleagues to replace the devices on the ground.”