The UK incumbent operator says it may struggle to meet the 2023 deadline to remove Huawei equipment from its networks

Facing increasing pressure from the US over national security fears, back in January 2020 the UK government initially ruled that Huawei’s market share in the UK’s mobile networks would need to be reduced to just 35%. 

At the time, BT said that the process of removing and replacing the Huawei equipment in its networks would take years and cost them roughly £500 million.

Later that same year, however, the UK government took the decision to ban Huawei more broadly, ordering telcos to stop purchasing 5G equipment from the Chinese vendor by the end of the year, remove existing 5G equipment from the core of the network by the 28th of January 2023, and reduce overall presence in the networks to the aforementioned 35%. 

All Huawei 5G equipment must be removed from UK networks by 2027. 

At the time of the announcement, UK telcos were broadly supportive of the announced deadline, having previously feared that the government would enforce a far more accelerated (and therefore impractical and expensive) transition. 

Nonetheless, the three-year removal period will still require a major effort from UK telcos and failure to meet the deadlines would not be cheap; the government has said previously that telcos could face fines of up to £100,000 a day if they have not complied in time.

By the end of 2020, BT had already selected both Nokia and Ericsson to fill the 5G-shaped void that would be left by Huawei, and, in May 2021, the operator had reportedly already begun removing Huawei equipment at roughly 12,000 sites around the UK.

However, it seems that the rip and replace process is taking longer than anticipated, with reports today suggesting that BT is seeking an extension on the January 2023 deadline to remove Huawei equipment from their core network. 

BT says that they are running behind schedule in removing the equipment due to “Covid-driven impacts to the programme” since 2020. In a statement, the operator said it would require a “necessary, short extension” in order to avoid the equipment’s removal affecting service for customers. 

Nonetheless, the operator said it was still confident that it could remove all Huawei equipment by the 2027 deadline. 

“We continue to liaise with DCMS and the National Cyber Security Centre (NCSC) to ensure our programme can be completed as quickly and safely as possible, and remain confident that the final 2027 deadline for delivering new equipment throughout the 5G network is achievable,” said BT.

A response from the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) as to whether to grant the extension will be published once a decision has been made. 

This is not the first time a UK operator has sought an extension for the removal of Huawei equipment. Earlier this year, the government granted telcos an additional six months (until July 2023) to comply with the 35% non-core network cap on Huawei equipment. BT will be hopeful that DCMS will be similarly lenient towards their request regarding core network equipment. 

How will the removal of Huawei equipment impact the UK’s 5G progress? Find out from the operators at this year’s live Connected Britain event