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UK still can’t make a decision about Huawei and 5G

Political uncertainty forces UK mobile networks to make own choices in 5G rollout
While the race for Number 10 continues, the UK’s mobile networks are gambling that the new Prime Minister will let them use Huawei equipment in their 5G networks.

The UK government has set out its plans to improve telecoms security as new 5G networks are being built – but still can’t decide whether to allow Huawei technology to be used in those networks.

As part of a review of the supply chain in the telecoms industry, the government has said it will set out new security requirements; telecoms operators will need to design and manage their networks to meet these new standards. They will also be subject to rigorous oversight as part of their procurement and contract management processes, the government said.

Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Secretary Jeremy Wright told Parliament: “We must have a competitive, sustainable and diverse supply chain if we are to drive innovation and reduce the risk of dependency on individual suppliers.”

But Wright said the government “is not yet” in a position to decide what involvement Huawei should have in the delivery of the UK’s 5G network.

This, he said, was because in May the US government added Huawei to its Entity List on national security grounds. As a result US companies now have to apply for a licence to transfer some technology to Huawei, although the US government has issued a 90-day temporary licence that allows some transfers.

“These measures could have a potential impact on the future availability and reliability of Huawei’s products together with other market impacts and so are relevant considerations in determining Huawei’s involvement in the network,” Wright said.

“Since the US government’s announcement we have sought clarity on the extent and implications but the position is not yet entirely clear. Until it is, we have concluded it would be wrong to make specific decisions in relation to Huawei,” he said.

Last week the government was warned its dithering over whether Huawei should be allowed to provide equipment for the UK’s 5G networks was causing “serious damage” to the UK’s international relationships.

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The aim of the government’s Future Telecoms Infrastructure Review was to set out the UK’s long-term strategy for the switch to fibre and 5G mobile networks.

While its still early days for 5G networks, these could over time form the backbone for new services from self-driving cars to augmented reality or robotic factories. Because these services will be so core to how we live, the reliability and security of these systems is even more important than it is for existing networks. 

When the 4G network goes down it’s not just phones that don’t work – businesses are already connecting up all devices from security systems to bus stops to wireless networks. In the future many more devices will be connected to 5G, which means any outages could cause chaos. Also, because 5G will be integrated with so many services, any backdoor or weakness to could allow hackers or a foreign power to snoop on data or meddle with services could be a serious problem.

Because 5G involves billions in investment by network operators on new technology with new vendors, the review, when it was set up, was due to look at the supply arrangements underpinning telecoms to ensure the security and resilience of UK telecoms networks and services; and the quality, availability and long-term cost of telecoms equipment.

However, in the last few months this rather dull but worthwhile review has become a political hot potato.

The US, in particular, has become very vocal in its concerns about countries using equipment from Huawei in their 5G networks. It has claimed that using the Chinese vendor’s products gives the Chinese state a backdoor into these critical networks: Huawei has denied that this would be possible, and the US has so far provided no evidence to back up its assertions.

The US administration has been putting pressure on its allies, including the UK, to stop using Huawei, and the UK government said the DCMS review would help it to decide whether Huawei equipment should be used in UK 5G networks. The review was due in the Spring. 

Meanwhile, the UK’s mobile operators have been racing ahead and installing 5G networks – including Huawei equipment. Ripping out that recently installed equipment would cost tens of millions of pounds and put back the rollout of 5G by as much as two years. 

Huawei said in a statement: “The UK government’s Supply Chain Review gives us confidence that we can continue to work with network operators to rollout 5G across the UK. The findings are an important step forward for 5G and full fibre broadband networks in the UK.” It added: “After 18 years of operating in the UK, we remain committed to supporting BT, EE, Vodafone and other partners build secure, reliable networks.”

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