Huawei preps for UK vanishing act with no-show at govt. hearing

The Chinese vendor seemingly didn't fancy another session in front of Trump-aligned UK politicians.

Iain Morris, International Editor

July 29, 2020

5 Min Read
Huawei preps for UK vanishing act with no-show at govt. hearing

Either Huawei is in a huff or its executives didn't relish another grilling by UK politicians this week. Possibly both.

Asked to attend a Commons Defence Committee hearing, the Chinese equipment vendor apparently said no.

"We were expecting Huawei to join us. Unfortunately, they have declined to be here," said the seemingly bemused Tobias Ellwood, a member of the ruling Conservative Party whose views about the Chinese vendor seem aligned with Donald Trump's – judging by his previous contributions to Twitter.

"This might be connected to the recent announcement in July," Ellwood chortled in reference to the UK government decision to ban Huawei from the country's 5G market. "I am sure they are here in spirit. If not, I am certain they are going to be listening this afternoon."

Based on the previous experience, a session in front of belligerent UK politicians would not have been comfortable.

Last time round, Jeremy Thompson, the vice president of Huawei UK, was made to sweat by references to China's recent trampling of civil liberties in Hong Kong.

If executives at the independent Huawei are free to voice personal opinions, as Huawei insists, then what does Thompson think about the situation in Hong Kong?

After momentary squirming, he declined to share his thoughts (in a public venue, at least).

Nor could Huawei have expected much support from its customers this week. Now the ban is a fait accompli, BT and Vodafone, both present at the hearing, are more interested in finding alternatives than defending Huawei's honor.

US sanctions threatening Huawei's semiconductor supply lines should make no difference to the UK's 5G rollout because Huawei already has sufficient inventory to meet the country's needs, the company has said.

But Scott Petty, the chief technology officer of Vodafone UK, rubbished the logic.

"While it would be possible to use already manufactured equipment, five years is a very long time in our industry and technology evolves very quickly in terms of the performance of units and antennas we deploy as well as power consumption elements," he said.

"We would essentially be locking ourselves into a five-year deadlock on equipment we could use and not be able to take advantage of faster chipsets and lower energy consumption and I think that in a balanced risk discussion that would be difficult to accept."

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At least Petty and Howard Watson, the chief technology officer of BT, are in alignment with Huawei on the disruption that a two- or three-year swap would cause.

Predicting blackouts, service problems, a delay to 5G rollout and other techno misfortunes, they have been granted until the end of 2027 to replace Huawei entirely.

But then, they would say that, wouldn't they? When the government's latest infrastructure project threatens to bulldoze your home, you don't say no problem and politely offer to budge out of the way next week.

Understandably, both operators, which have seen their share prices topple in recent years, are determined to sweat assets and depreciate costs over as long a period as they can.

Bailing out
Even so, Ericsson, which seems bound to replace Huawei in at least part of BT's network, insists a much speedier swap is possible without any disruption.

"I can't get into any definite timelines, but we have been engaged in a number of swaps historically and it will not take five to seven years," said Fredrik Jejdling, the Swedish vendor's head of networks, during a recent conversation with Light Reading. "We can do it a lot faster. We are ready and we have the supply chain and the local service capability to do it."

It might have to. One possibility raised today is that UK parliamentarians amend the date for Huawei's total exclusion to 2023.

"We will comply with the law, but we've been clear that a 2023 date for complete removal would cause significant mobile network outages," said Watson when pressed on what this would mean.

A more sinister outcome is that China orders Huawei to abandon the UK like a boobytrapped building, leaving all sorts of mess behind for operators to clean up.

BT appears to have thought about that. "Our contingency plans are the ability to run equipment we have now independently of Huawei," he said. "If Huawei were instructed to pull out, we would run the network ourselves while we undertook a swap."

Of course, this means BT hasn't been entirely convinced by Huawei's claims to be totally separate from the Chinese state.

If its contingency plan is ever used, no one will be.

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— Iain Morris, International Editor, Light Reading

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About the Author(s)

Iain Morris

International Editor, Light Reading

Iain Morris joined Light Reading as News Editor at the start of 2015 -- and we mean, right at the start. His friends and family were still singing Auld Lang Syne as Iain started sourcing New Year's Eve UK mobile network congestion statistics. Prior to boosting Light Reading's UK-based editorial team numbers (he is based in London, south of the river), Iain was a successful freelance writer and editor who had been covering the telecoms sector for the past 15 years. His work has appeared in publications including The Economist (classy!) and The Observer, besides a variety of trade and business journals. He was previously the lead telecoms analyst for the Economist Intelligence Unit, and before that worked as a features editor at Telecommunications magazine. Iain started out in telecoms as an editor at consulting and market-research company Analysys (now Analysys Mason).

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