At the start of 2020 the UK gave broadband ISPs and mobile operators a green light to use only non-core focused telecoms kit from Chinese giant Huawei (here), including a cap to reduce their market share. But new reports allege that the Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, could be about to do a dramatic U-turn and shock the industry.
Officials have long been concerned about the security implicates of deploying Huawei‘s kit into the country’s telecoms infrastructure and we won’t repeat all that again (see the article linked above). Much of this pressure has come from the USA via President Trump, which adds a political dynamic due to their bitter trade dispute with China.
Since then a number of other events have occurred, not least the questions over China’s questionable response to the outbreak of COVID-19 (Coronavirus) and plans for a new security law in Hong Kong. Meanwhile the looming trade deal between the UK and USA is also a consideration. Whatever the realities or falsehoods of those original security concerns, wider politics and pressures may be starting to weigh on the Government.
Fast forward to today and several newspapers (here and here) are reporting that the Government may be set to cave into demands from a key group of Conservative MPs, which have been staunchly opposed to any involvement of the Chinese firm in UK telecoms (both in the core and less sensitive non-core part of such networks).
The newspapers claim that a new plan is being developed by Boris, which could allegedly reduce the Chinese company’s involvement in UK broadband and mobile infrastructure to zero by 2023. One of the rebel MPs opposed to China’s involvement in UK telecoms, Sir Iain Duncan Smith, said: “This is very good news and I hope and believe it will be the start of a complete and thorough review of our dangerous dependency on China.”
It’s going to get ugly..
Leaving aside the inevitable ramifications of becoming less open to inward investment from China. Any dramatic change of course now seems likely to produce a hostile response from the industry, which will have already revised their plans to adopt the Government’s earlier balanced approach (BT alone is set to take a £500m hit from that). But completely removing Huawei’s kit from UK networks by 2023 also seems like an unworkable ask.
Firstly, part of the reason for the Government’s decision in January was likely to be because completely banning Huawei could make the rollout of new “gigabit-capable” 5G, and possibly also fixed broadband ISP networks, both much slower and more expensive to achieve. This in turn would have impacted Boris’s recent £5bn pledge to ensure that every UK home can access 1Gbps speed broadband networks by the end of 2025.
The notion of reducing Huawei’s involvement to “zero” by 2023 is also unrealistic for other reasons, not least because it would mean ripping out masses of existing 4G, and some newer 5G, mobile kit, as well as replacing tens of thousands of Huawei based broadband street cabinets (FTTC / VDSL2) and ripping their “full fibre” (FTTP) Optical Network Terminals (ONT) off the walls in UK homes etc.
Achieving that kind of mass infrastructure cull by 2023 would be a massive task and could well cost billions across all of the various network operators (i.e. who pays and is it right to expect operators to foot such a colossal bill, despite being given the all clear for years beforehand?). All of this would also divert engineers and resources from deploying new services, possibly for several years, which will dramatically slow the 5G and FTTP roll-out.
Suffice to say that such a plan, if confirmed, will almost certainly still need to include some exceptions for existing deployments, not least so that operators can replace ageing kit organically (i.e. as part of natural end-of-life retirements rather than forcibly – this would of course take many years longer).
Likewise there will be concerns about the disproportionate impact upon smaller operators, which simply won’t have the resources to do this full stop. Lest we also forget the ongoing disruption to street works due to COVID-19, which may well continue to some degree into late 2021. But for now it’s a case of wait and see.. again.