British mobile carriers warn removing Huawei will disrupt customers and cost billions

  • A Vodafone executive warned the firm would have to spend "single-figure billions" if it were forced to swap out Huawei equipment.
  • The U.K. government is reportedly preparing plans to strip Huawei gear from the country's 5G mobile networks entirely.
  • Vodafone and BT both called for a five-year transition plan to avoid disruption.

British mobile network operators have warned that removing Huawei equipment from their networks could lead to severe disruption for customers, with Vodafone going as far as to say it would cost the firm billions of pounds

Andrea Dona, Vodafone's head of networks in the U.K., said  Wednesday that the carrier would have to spend "single-figure billions" if it was forced to swap Huawei telecoms kit out for another vendor's.

The government is reportedly preparing plans to strip Huawei gear from Britain's 5G mobile networks entirely, contrary to an initial decision in January to give the firm a restricted role.

Under the current government guidelines, U.K. telecom providers are required to reduce the share of Huawei kit in non-core parts of their infrastructure to 35% by 2023. BT's network currently consist of two-thirds Huawei and one-third Nokia, while Vodafone's contains one-third Huawei and two-thirds Ericsson.

But this decision has been called into question of late after sanctions were imposed by the U.S. on Huawei, aimed at cutting off the Chinese firm from key chip supplies.

'Blackouts'

Dona said that, if Vodafone were required to replace Huawei's equipment entirely with another vendor's by the 2023 target, its customers would lose their signal for a "couple of days" in some instances. He and an executive from BT both called for a five-year transition plan to avoid such disruption.

"It is logistically impossible I believe to get to zero in a three-year period," BT Chief Technology Officer Howard Watson told lawmakers on the U.K. Parliament's Science and Technology Committee. BT owns EE, the U.K.'s biggest mobile network operator. 

"That would literally mean blackouts for customers on 4G and 2G as well as 5G throughout the country," Watson added.

The U.S. has been upping the pressure on the British government to change its decision to allow Huawei a role in its 5G rollout. Officials in Washington are concerned the Chinese telecom giant could enable Beijing to spy on sensitive communications. Huawei has denied such claims, frequently stating it is independent from the Chinese government.

"This is a once in a lifetime opportunity for the U.K. to be a leader in 5G," Victor Zhang, Huawei's U.K. boss, told reporters on Wednesday. "But the restrictions imposed by the U.S potentially threaten that leadership and risk the U.K. moving into the technology slow lane. More importantly, these restrictions may deepen the digital divide."

– CNBC's Sam Shead contributed to this report.

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