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Huawei green lit to build non-core 5G network in UK

Image credit: Dreamtimes/Reuters

Boris Johnson has given the long-awaited nod to Huawei, the Shenzhen-based telecommunications company, permitting it to play a limited role in the UK’s 5G infrastructure.

Huawei is the largest telecommunications company in the world and is widely considered the leader in 5G equipment. However, its role in the UK’s 5G network has been under question for months over national security concerns; under a 2017 law, companies based in China are required to cooperate with government intelligence and security agencies.

Huawei has also been charged with trade theft and violating trade sanctions by the US government - which has banned it from involvement in its own national 5G infrastructure – while critics have further accused the company of being complicit with human rights violations in Xinjiang and other regions.

Despite these concerns, the UK's Prime Minister Boris Johnson and the National Security Council have decided that “high-risk vendors” such as Huawei should be allowed to play a limited role in the building of the country's 5G infrastructure.

Huawei will be allowed to provide equipment for no more than 35 per cent of the Radio Access Network (which is comprised of antennas, base stations and other peripheral parts of the infrastructure) while rivals will provide the security-critical core parts of the network. This will mean that Huawei should be unable to manipulate the data being transmitted.

“We want world-class connectivity as soon as possible, but this must not be at the expense of our national security. High-risk vendors never have been and never will be in our most sensitive networks,” said the digital minister Nicky Morgan. “The government has reviewed the supply chain for telecoms networks and concluded today it is necessary to have tight restrictions on the presence of high-risk vendors.”

The National Cyber Security Centre is reported to have issued advice to network operators warning that high-risk companies such as Huawei should be blocked from any critical and safety-related networks. Huawei will not be able to provide equipment for sensitive locations such as military bases and nuclear sites.

Ciaran Martin, CEO of the National Cyber Security Centre, commented: “This package will ensure that the UK has a very strong, practical and technically sound framework for digital security in the years ahead. The National Cyber Security Centre has issued advice to telecoms network operators to help with the industry rollout of 5G and full-fibre networks in line with the government’s objectives. Taken together, these measures add up to a very strong framework for digital security.”

The government acknowledged that there was a need to improve diversity and competition in the telecommunications industry. One of the strongest arguments in favour of Huawei has been that its closest competitors Ericsson and Nokia have significantly less mature 5G technologies. A spokesperson for the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport said that the government would support “new, disruptive entrants” to the telecommunications supply chain.

Huawei warmly welcomed the news, with vice-president Victor Zhang saying: “Huawei is reassured by the UK government’s confirmation that we can continue working with our customers to keep the 5G roll-out on track. This evidence-based decision will result in a more advanced, more secure and more cost-effective telecoms infrastructure that is fit for the future. It gives the UK access to world-leading technology and ensures a competitive market.

“We have supplied cutting-edge technology to telecoms operators in the UK for more than 15 years. We will build on this strong track record, supporting our customers as they invest in their 5G networks, boosting economic growth and helping the UK continue to compete globally.”

Johnson’s decision will set him up for conflict with his own MPs and the White House: he is hoping to agree a speedy trade deal with the latter, with the support of the former. However, the Trump administration has already been engaged in an intense lobbying effort to discourage Johnson from agreeing to permit Huawei’s involvement in the UK's 5G infrastructure, threatening to limit intelligence sharing in future.

Andy Barratt, UK MD at cyber-security consultancy Coalfire, commented that a ban on Huawei would be “a classic case of shutting the stable door after the horse has bolted.”

Barratt added: “Huawei’s products are already engrained into the western tech ecosystem and the huge amount of white labelling that takes place in the industry means that Chinese components are inevitably found in all manner of devices.”

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