Huawei set for limited role in UK 5G networks
The UK has decided to let Huawei continue to be used in its 5G networks but with restrictions, despite pressure from the US to block the firm. The Chinese firm will be banned from supplying kit to “sensitive parts” of the network, known as the core.
In addition, it will only be allowed to account for 35% of the kit in a network’s periphery, which includes radio masts.
And it will be excluded from areas near military bases and nuclear sites.
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo had previously suggested that use of Huawei’s equipment posed a spying risk, saying that “we won’t be able to share information” with nations that put it into their “critical information systems”.
But the Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab has said the decision would not affect the UK’s intelligence-sharing relationship with the US and other close allies.
“Nothing in this review affects this country’s ability to share highly-sensitive intelligence data over highly-secure networks both within the UK and our partners, including the Five Eyes,” the minister told the House of Commons.
A document published by the National Cyber Security Centre (NCSC) indicates that the UK’s networks will have three years to comply with the caps on the use of Huawei’s equipment.
“Huawei is reassured by the UK government’s confirmation that we can continue working with our customers to keep the 5G rollout on track,” the firm’s UK chief Victor Zhang said in a statement.
“It gives the UK access to world-leading technology and ensures a competitive market.”
The prime minister had faced pressure from the US and some Conservative MPs to block the Chinese tech giant on the grounds of national security.
A Trump administration official has said the US “is disappointed” with the decision.
Beijing had warned the UK there could be “substantial” repercussions to other trade and investment plans had the company been banned outright.
The choice has been described as the biggest test of Boris Johnson’s post-Brexit strategy to date.
Huawei has always denied that it would help the Chinese government attack one of its clients. The firm’s founder has said he would “shut the company down” rather than aid “any spying activities”.
Conservative MP Tom Tugendhat, former chair of the Foreign Affairs Select Committee, tweeted that the government’s “statement leaves many concerns and does not close the UK’s networks to a frequently malign international actor”.
Three out of four of the UK’s mobile networks had already decided to use and deploy Huawei’s 5G products outside the core in the “periphery”.
Two of them – Vodafone and EE – now face having to reduce their reliance on the supplier, as more than 35% of their existing radio access network equipment was made by it.
The cap also applies to the Shenzen-based firm’s involvement in the rollout of full-fibre broadband. According to a government report published last June, Huawei currently has a 45% share of that market.
“We want world-class connectivity as soon as possible but this must not be at the expense of our national security,” said Britain’s digital secretary Baroness Morgan.
“High-risk vendors never have been and never will be in our most sensitive networks,” she said referring to government and intelligence systems.
BT has some of Huawei’s equipment in the core of its EE network but is in the process of replacing it.
“This is a good compromise between alleviating ‘security’ concerns and making sure that the 5G UK market is not harmed,” commented Dimitris Mavrakis, a telecoms analyst at ABI Research.
“It means there will be minimal disruption to existing 5G rollout plans.”
New 5G suppliers
The government has also said the UK needs to “improve the diversity in the supply of equipment” to the country’s telecom networks.
Beyond Huawei, the world’s four main providers are:
- Nokia – a Finnish company
- Ericsson – a Swedish company
- Samsung – a South Korean company
- ZTE – a Chinese company that the country’s government part-owns
At present, the UK is mostly dependent on Huawei, Nokia and Ericsson – a situation that has caused the NCSC’s technical director to claim that the “market is broken”.
“We need to diversify the market significantly in the UK so that we have a more robust supply base to enable the long-term security of the UK networks and to ensure we do not end up nationally dependent on any vendor.”
In response, the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport has said it will now support “the emergence of new, disruptive entrants to the supply chain” and promote “the adoption of open, interoperable standards”.
The new rules still have to be debated and approved by MPs. Tim Morrison, a former US National Security Council official, urged them to rebel.
“There is still time for backbenchers in both parties to save the special relationship and the privacy rights of Britons if they vote to block this mistake by the government.”