Canadian telecom giants Telus Corp. and BCE Inc. could face at least $1-billion in costs if Canada follows the lead of close allies the United States, Australia and New Zealand in barring telecommunications equipment made by China’s Huawei from their next generation networks, industry sources told The Globe and Mail.
Executives at both companies – which have significantly invested in Huawei equipment – have compiled the financial costs of being prohibited from using the Chinese telecom’s technology in 5G mobile networks.
BCE, Telus and, to a lesser extent, Rogers Communications, all use Huawei equipment in their cellular networks, and as the Shenzhen-based company has made inroads in the Canadian market in recent years, have come to rely on its competitively priced gear to help reduce costs in a field that requires regular capital investment.
One telecom executive pegged the cost of a Huawei ban at $500-million to $1-billion for Telus alone, while another industry source estimated it would run Bell hundreds of millions. A third senior telecom insider, who has direct knowledge of the issue, said the total estimated cost for BCE and Telus would exceed $1-billion. The Globe has given the sources anonymity because they are not authorized to discuss sensitive company business.
These costs would arise because, to remove Huawei equipment from cellular infrastructure as they build their 5G network, Bell and Telus would have to rip out and replace tens of thousands of antennas. They would likely have to turn to Sweden’s Ericsson, which is the main 5G rival to Huawei and is already partnered with Rogers.
Telus devotes nearly $1-billion to capital expenditures a year, most of that for network infrastructure. Bell invested just more than $730-million in each of the past two years in capital expenditures in the wireless business and about $3-billion each year on communications systems that use cable and wire.
Desmond Lau, a telecommunications sector analyst with Veritas Investment Research, said “if they were to rip that out and replace it, it would probably be quite expensive.” For each of Telus and Bell, “It would not be unreasonable to think a full rip-and-replace would cost in the range of $1-billion.” He noted that figure was a “guesstimate” as it was not based on information disclosed by the companies. He said a rip-out “is a possibility” but “it’s too soon to say that this will, will not or might happen.”
The federal government is conducting a national security review to determine whether Canada should follow the United States, Australia and New Zealand, fellow members of the Five Eyes intelligence-sharing alliance, in banning Huawei products from 5G cellular networks.
In Britain, which is also a member of the Five Eyes, BT Group announced on Wednesday that it is removing Huawei equipment from its core 4G networks and will not use its 5G technology, a move made two days after Alex Younger, chief of the Secret Intelligence Service, known as MI6, questioned whether Britain should use Chinese gear. Japanese media also reported on Friday that the country planned to ban government purchases of equipment from Huawei and rival Chinese telcom ZTE Corp.
Former Liberal foreign affairs minister John Manley, a member of Telus' board and the former chief executive of the Business Council of Canada, a business lobby group, expressed concern that the U.S. government is driving Canada’s foreign policy on Huawei and China.
“We need to have our own China policy driven by our own national interest, and unfortunately we have got ourselves caught in a situation where our China policy is being much fashioned by some hardliners in Washington,” Mr. Manley told CTV Question Period in an interview to be aired on Sunday.
However, former prime minister Stephen Harper told Fox News on Thursday that he supports Washington’s campaign to persuade Canada and other allies to cut ties with Huawei, which he said acts as an agent of Beijing.
The U.S. government has contacted allies and foreign telcom executives in a bid to persuade wireless and internet providers to avoid Huawei equipment for national security reasons.
BCE and Telus have declined to reveal whether U.S. national security officials have asked them to avoid Huawei equipment. Rogers said it had not been contacted.
In an interview in early November, BCE chief executive officer George Cope did not comment specifically on any conversations about Huawei with national security officials from any country.
“We’ve had obligations that we’ve had to meet with the Canadian government and we’ve always met them, as has Huawei,” Mr. Cope said, adding that BCE does not use Huawei equipment in its core network, “so I’m relaxed about it.
Mr. Cope said Huawei “is an incredible company from a technology perspective and the real benefit of that is Canadians get this great technology. Do we want to deprive Canadians of some of the best worldwide infrastructure?”