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Government U-turn to shut Huawei out of UK 5G by 2027

Image credit: REUTERS/Dado Ruvic/File Photo

In a U-turn from a decision made earlier this year, the UK government has announced that Shenzhen-based Huawei will not be permitted to play any role in the rollout of the UK’s 5G network. Mobile operators will have until 2027 to remove all Huawei equipment from their 5G infrastructure.

In January, the government announced that Huawei and other “high-risk vendors” would be permitted a limited role in the UK 5G rollout. Mobile network operators would be allowed to use equipment from Huawei for up to 35 per cent of their non-core infrastructure, with no Huawei equipment permitted in sensitive areas such as military bases and nuclear facilities.

The decision to give Huawei the green light was strongly criticised by backbench Tory MPs, who have formed the 60-strong 'Huawei Interest Group' and threatened a rebellion over the decision.

The US government has accused Huawei – the world’s largest telecommunications equipment company – of being a national security threat, which could be used as an earpiece by the Chinese government, and pressured its allies to block Huawei from their telecommunications infrastructure with the threat of limiting intelligence-sharing with countries which work with Huawei. Several countries have blocked Huawei from their 5G networks or encouraged operators to use equipment from rival companies Nokia and Ericsson.

Huawei has repeatedly denied these accusations. It maintains that it is a private company fully owned by its employees.

In May, the Trump administration doubled down on its restrictions on Huawei, preventing the company from accessing electronics developed by American companies. Following this announcement, UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson commissioned a review into whether Huawei is still in a position to provide equipment for the UK’s 5G infrastructure.

Following a meeting with the National Security Council this morning, the government concluded that Huawei should not have any involvement in the UK’s 5G infrastructure at all.

In a statement to the House of Commons, the Minister for Digital, Culture, Media, and Sport Oliver Dowden explained that the new US sanctions had caused the National Cyber Security Centre (NCSC) to significantly change its security assessment of Huawei’s role in the UK’s 5G network

“Given the uncertainty that this creates around Huawei’s supply chain, the UK can no longer be confident it will be able to guarantee the security of future Huawei 5G equipment affected by the change in US foreign direct product rules,” Dowden said.

“The government agrees with the NCSC’s advice that the best way to secure our networks is for operators to stop using new, affected Huawei equipment to build the UK’s future 5G networks,” he continued. “To be clear, from the end of this year telecoms operators must not buy any 5G equipment from Huawei. Once the Telecoms Security Bill is passed, it will be illegal for them to do so.”

Dowden said that the government would require the removal of all Huawei equipment from 5G infrastructure by 2027 in the new bill. He acknowledged that this would delay the rollout of 5G by a total of two to three years at a cost of up to £2bn. The government will also be launching a technical consultation with operators on the future of full-fibre networks.

Shadow Minister for Science, Research & Digital Chi Onwurah criticised the government for having been “incomprehensibly negligent” over its handling of Huawei. She characterised the drawn-out decision-making concluding with today’s announcement as “a car crash for our digital economy which could have been visible from outer space”.

Network operators have warned the government against demanding a hasty removal of all Huawei equipment from their infrastructure, with representatives from both Vodafone and BT asking for at least five years for the removal. They warned that their customers could face blackouts lasting two days if they were required to remove Huawei equipment by 2023. Huawei has developed strong relationships with operators over its 20-year history in the UK, and is considered to offer the most sophisticated 5G equipment.

A spokesperson for Huawei UK said: “This disappointing decision is bad news for anyone in the UK with a mobile phone. It threatens to move Britain into the digital slow lane, push up bills and deepen the digital divide. Instead of levelling up, the government is levelling down and we urge them to reconsider. We remain confident that the new US restrictions would not have affected the resilience or security of the products we supply to the UK.

“Regrettably, our future in the UK has become politicised, this is about US trade policy and not security. Over the past 20 years, Huawei has focused on building a better-connected UK. As a responsible business, we will continue to support our customers as we have always done. We will conduct a detailed review of what today’s announcement means for our business here and will work with the UK government to explain how we can continue to contribute to a better-connected Britain.”

Arun Bansal, Ericsson’s president of Europe and Latin America, commented: “Today’s decision removes the uncertainty that was slowing down investment decisions around the deployment of 5G in the UK. It is now time for the industry to come together and start delivering on the promise of creating a world-leading 5G network for the people, businesses, and economy of the UK. Ericsson has the technology, experience, and supply chain capacity to help accomplish this, and we stand ready to work with the UK operators to meet their timetable, with no disruption to customers.”

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