Boris Johnson must allow more phone masts or risk slowing down Huawei removal, warn mobile networks

Tony Diver
·3-min read
The Government has committed to the UK becoming a 'world leader' in 5G - Bloomberg/ Jason Alden
The Government has committed to the UK becoming a 'world leader' in 5G - Bloomberg/ Jason Alden

The UK's mobile operators have threatened that they will be unable to quickly remove Huawei technology from Britain's phone networks unless the Government grants them sweeping new powers to build larger phone masts and expand their coverage.

Mobile UK, the trade body that represents EE, Vodafone, O2 and 3, said the Government must speed up planning legislation that would allow the companies to strengthen their infrastructure, or there would be “challenges” that could delay the expulsion of Huawei components from UK networks.

Its warning comes after Boris Johnson committed to removing Huawei from British phone infrastructure on the recommendation of a GCHQ report that contained security concerns about the company’s extensive supply of equipment to the UK.

Gareth Elliott, head of policy for Mobile UK, said removing Huawei technology could create “costs and impacts that make things more difficult”.

He called for planning reform that would allow the companies to build larger phone masts and boost 4G coverage, and make it easier to comply with the directive to strip out Huawei, which is expected to be introduced in law after Parliament returns from recess.

“What we’re saying is if the Government and society are saying that people expect to use our networks and they expect to use them more, and they expect that to continue, we need to build that capacity in,” he said.

“The issue [of Huawei] will impact that. We need help to ensure that we can do it quickly because we’ve got a lot of challenges.”

Mr Elliott said the Government should push through the new legislation by the end of the year.

But the phone companies are on a collision course with MPs with concerns about China, who say they will frustrate the planning reforms unless Mr Johnson keeps his word to expel Huawei components from the UK.

A source close to the 60-strong Huawei Interest Group in Parliament said MPs would tag anti-China amendments onto any new telecoms bills, including the planning bill, until the Prime Minister delivers on his promise.

“MPs are going to continue to target telecommunications bills, and as a result the Government is unlikely to bring additional telecommunications bills to the House, knowing that they each present massive legislative headaches,” the source said.

“Any hope of seeing telecommunications legislation tabled in the next four months is for the birds.”

The group’s rebellion could delay the rollout of new masts that would create mobile connectivity on all major roads in the UK, expand Britain’s 4G coverage and introduce 5G internet.

Mobile phone networks increased during the UK’s coronavirus lockdown, placing additional strain on the infrastructure.

A new survey by the British Chambers of Commerce (BCC), which represents 75,000 UK businesses, reports nearly 80 per cent of respondents expect to either maintain or increase their higher levels of mobile network usage over the next 12 months.

The BCC called on Mr Johnson to “remove unnecessary barriers to upgrading vital infrastructure,” which it said would help employees working from home.

Tom Tugendhat, the chairman of Parliament’s Foreign Affairs Committee, said the Government would have no issues from China-sceptic MPs on its telecoms legislation as long as it “sticks to its word”.

“The Government can get through its business if it sticks to its agreement to get Huawei out of the system,” he said.