The chief executive of UK incumbent telco BT has warned any authorities move to demand a quick rip-out of Huawei kit from existing mobile infrastructure could lead to network outages for mobile users and generate its own set of safety risks.
Huawei has been the focus of concern for both Western governments including the US and its allies because of the scale of its role in providing global networks and next-gen 5G, and its close ties to the Chinese authorities — leading to worries that relying on its own equipment can expose nations to cybersecurity dangers and weaken national security.
The UK government is widely expected to announce a policy change elsewhere, after reports earlier this year it would reverse course on so called”high risk” vendors and mandate a phase out of use of such kit in 5G networks by 2023.
Talking to BBC Radio 4’s Today program this afternoon, BT CEO Philip Jansen said he wasn’t aware of the detail of any new government coverage but warned too quickly a removal of Huawei gear would take its own risks.
“Security and security in the brief term could be placed in danger. This is actually critical — because if you are not able to buy or transact with Huawei that would mean that you would not be able to find software updates if you take it to this specificity,” he said.
“Over the next five years we’d anticipate 15-20 big software updates. If you don’t have those you’re running gaps in critical software that may have security implications far larger than anything we’re talking about with respect to managing to a 35% cap from the access network of a mobile operator.”
“When we get a scenario where things will need to go very, very quickly then you’re in a situation where possibly service for 24M BT Group mobile customers is put into question,” he added, warning that”outages would be potential”.
Back in January the authorities issued a considerably delayed policy statement establishing an approach to that which it dubbed”high risk” 5G vendors — detailing a package of restrictions that it said were intended to mitigate any risk, including capping their involvement at 35% of the access system. Such vendors would also be completely barred them by the sensitive”center” of 5G networks. The UK has faced global and national opposition to the compromise coverage, including from inside its own political party.
Wider economic developments — such as further US sanctions on Huawei and China’s approach to Hong Kong, a former British colony — appear to have functioned to change the political climate in Number 10 Downing Street against permitting even a limited function for Huawei.
Asked about the feasibility of BT eliminating all Huawei kit, not only equipment employed for 5G, Jansen indicated that the company would require at least a decade to do so.
“It is all about balance and timing,” he told the BBC. “If you wished to get no Huawei from the complete telecoms infrastructure throughout the whole of the UK I think that’s impossible to do in under ten years.”
If the government coverage is limited to only removing such kit out of 5G networks Jansen said”ideally” BT would want seven years to carry out the work — he conceded it”could likely do it in five”.
“The current policy declared in January was going to cap the use of Huawei or any high risk vendor to 35% in the access system. We’re working towards this 35% cap by 2023 — which I think we can make though it’s implications concerning roll out prices,” he went on. “When the government makes a policy decision which effectively heralds a shift from that declared in January then we simply need to comprehend the possible implications and consequences of that.
“Again we constantly — in BT and in discussions with GCHQ — we always take the approach that safety is absolutely paramount. It is the number one priority. But we must be certain that any change of leadership doesn’t lead to greater risk in the brief term. That’s where the detail actually matters.”
Jansen fired a further warning shot Johnson’s government, which has made a significant drive to accelerate the roll out of fiber wired broadband throughout the nation as part of a pledge to”upgrade” the UK, stating too tight a timeline to remove Huawei kit would jeopardize this”construct out to the future”. Instead, he advocated that”common sense” prevail.
“There’s enormous opportunity for the economy, for the nation and for many people from 5G and out of full fiber to the home and if you accelerate the tear out clearly you’re not building either so we’ve got to understand those implications and attempt to steer a course and find the ideal balance to managing this complex issue.
“It’s really important that we very carefully weigh up all of the different considerations and find the right way through this — depending on what the policy is and what is driving the policy. BT will obviously and is speaking directly with parts of government, [the National] Cyber Security Center, GCHQ, to ensure that everybody knows all the information and also a sensible decision is made. I am confident that at the most common sense will prevail and we’ll head down the right direction.”
Asked whether it agrees there are security risks attached to an accelerated removal of Huawei kit, the UK’s National Cyber Security Centre declined to comment. However a spokesperson for the NCSC pointed us to a previous announcement in which it said:”The security and durability of our networks is of paramount importance. Observing the US announcement of additional sanctions against Huawei, the NCSC is looking carefully at any effect they might have to the U.K.’s networks.”
We’ve also achieved to DCMS for remark.