The UK would face mobile phone “blackouts” if networks were required to remove all Huawei equipment by 2023, a BT executive has told MPs.
Speaking to the Commons science and technology committee, Howard Watson, BT’s chief technology and information officer, said the proposed three-year timeframe for the removal of the Chinese firm from Britain’s mobile phone infrastructure was borderline unachievable.
“To get to zero in a three-year period would literally mean blackouts for customers on 4G and 2G, as well as 5G, throughout the country,” Watson said, citing the logistical difficulty of physically working on that many masts in a short timeframe.
Vodafone UK’s head of networks, Andrea Donà, corroborated Watson’s warning, saying the necessary works would create signal blackspots, “sometimes for a couple of days, depending on how big or how intrusive the work carried out is”.
Huawei has come under deep scrutiny for its links to the Chinese state, although the company has always insisted it is a fully independent employee-owned organisation.
In January, the UK government announced that despite those concerns, it would allow Huawei equipment to be used in the creation of Britain’s 5G network, but the requirement that no more than 35% of the total network could run on Huawei gear. The decision was a blessing to Vodafone and BT, since the two companies each have around 60% of their network currently operating on Huawei base-stations.
However, Boris Johnson is now thought to be preparing to cave in to Conservative backbench rebels opposed to the presence of Huawei in 5G networks and drawing up plans to reduce the Chinese company’s involvement to zero by 2023.
Last week, a former head of MI6, John Sawers, argued that strict US sanctions meant Huawei was more integrated with Chinese tech than ever, and now posed an unacceptable security risk.
As well as the blackouts caused by the work of switching to new suppliers, the change would be extremely expensive. But BT and Vodafone appear to have given up hope of winning in the long term, with both firms arguing in the commons only for a slow switchover – a change from their position at the beginning of the year.
Huawei’s claim to be independent wasn’t helped by the firm’s own showing in front of the committee, when the company’s UK chief executive, Jeremy Thompson, walked into a trap set by the chair, Greg Clark. Asked by Clark whether UK Huawei employees were free to express their views, Thompson replied: “Yes. Very much so. We have a management team in the UK like any other UK organisation and we are free to express our views, yes.”
Clark then asked: “So what is your view of the new security law in Hong Kong?” Thompson declined to answer.