At least five years, “ideally seven,” will be needed to replace Huawei’s 5G equipment, Vodafone and BT have told British MPs. The introduction of the ultra-fast networks across the country would be delayed, they warned.

Executives from rival companies British Telecom and Vodafone UK have given their takes on phasing out the 5G equipment manufactured by the Chinese IT giant. Speculation that the UK government could ban Huawei’s gear from British networks has circulated in the press in recent days.

Andrea Dona, head of networks at Vodafone UK, told Parliament’s Science and Technology Committee that replacing the Huawei systems with alternative ones will take at least five years. “The replacement doesn’t happen overnight,” the executive warned.

He said it would involve physically switching off the signal and disconnecting the 5G antenna. The “service-affecting” action would be “highly disruptive for our customers and for our businesses,” Dona said, when pressed to explain what could happen if the company is told to phase out the Chinese-made gear in two years. 

People across the UK will be left without service “for a couple of days, depending on how big and how intrusive the work to be carried out is.” Further restrictions “will have an effect, it will delay the rollout of our 5G,” he added, stressing that it would have cost implications worth “single figure billions.”

“It is logistically impossible, I believe, to get to zero in a three-year period. That would literally mean blacking out the customers on 3G and 4G as well as 5G throughout the country,” stated Howard Watson, BT’s chief technology officer. “We would definitely not recommend that we go down this route,” he urged.

Aside from disruptions in mobile phone coverage, there would be other challenges, Watson said. In London, many 5G masts are installed on the rooftops, so dismantling them would involve sealing off adjacent streets and bringing in cranes. “We believe we need five years, ideally seven” to get the works done, the BT official said.

The revelations come on the back of reports that Boris Johnson’s government is considering banning the Huawei 5G equipment, thus bowing to US pressure. Washington has been insisting that the Chinese company poses a security risk and threatens UK-US intelligence sharing; the firm itself has repeatedly denied having links to the government in Beijing.

Huawei believes the US is piling pressure on countries because it is playing catch-up with Chinese vendors in a global race to 5G primacy. As Paul Harrison, Huawei’s head of international media, put it, America “fell asleep at the 5G wheel years ago & they’re fighting to claw back market position.” 

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