After several long weeks of uncertainty, the UK has offered a definitive ruling on Chinese telecomms company Huawei. Mobile operators will no longer be able to buy the company’s equipment from the end of the year, and the company’s equipment is set to be ripped out of the UK’s 5G network by 2027.
Speaking to parliament, secretary of state for digital, culture, media and sport Oliver Dowden stressed that the decision had been prompted by new US sanctions on the company that will mean it can no longer use American chips in its kit, and be forced to source that element elsewhere.
“There’s no such thing as a perfect secure network, but it’s up to the government to ensure it’s as secure as it can be,” said Dowden.
At the beginning of the year, the UK’s security agencies said that any risk posed by the vendor was manageable, but this latest development prompted the government to ask the National Cyber Security Centre (NCSC) to reassess. The NCSC found that the material risk had changed due to the sanctions and called for the UK to stop relying on Huawei to provide the country’s infrastructure.
The new ruling will be written into law with the passing of a new telecomms security bill, due to be introduced by Autumn.
Dowden was clear this decision would delay the rollout of 5G in the UK, as well as totting up an eye-watering bill. He said the decision in January to reduce Huawei’s role in the network to 35 per cent had already delayed the rollout by a year and cost £1bn. The decision to ban Huawei equipment from the end of the year means a further delay of a year, and adding another half a billion pound to the cost. Removing the equipment before 2027 will cost hundreds of millions more and add further delay. “This means a cumulative delayed 5G rollout of two to three years and costs of up to £2bn,” said Dowden.
He noted that a shorter time period however would add greater likelihood of disruption to mobile phone networks. BT and Voadafone have already warned that they would require at least five years to remove the company’s equipment from their networks.
“The UK is now acting quickly, decisively and ahead of our international partners,” said Dowden. “Our approach reflects the UK specific national circumstances and how the risks from these sanctions are manifested here in the UK. This has not been an easy decision, but it is the right one for the UK telecoms networks, for our national security and our economy.”
In the case of infrastructure beyond 5G, Dowden said that the government would embark on a short technical consultation with operators to understand their supply chain alternatives, but noted that these networks were “fundamentally different to 5G”.
Dowden put the current lack of alternatives to Huawei down to “a global market failure” in which countries including the UK had become “dangerously reliant on too few vendors”. He announced the government’s intention to embark on an ambitious diversification strategy with the “aim of driving competition and innovation to grow the market and deliver greater resilience across all of our networks”.
He said this strategy would cover three elements: securing the supply chains of incumbent, non-high risk vendors; bringing new scale vendors into the market by removing barriers to entry and new opportunities; and addressing the existing structure of the supply market by investing in research and development.
Dowden also noted the UK’s intention of working with “Five Eyes partners, and our friends around the world to bring together a coalition to deliver our shared goals”. The idea that the Five Eyes intelligence alliance could play a role in developing an alternative to Huawei has been raised before by MPs during parliamentary sessions.
Huawei has become totemic in the realignment of Sino-British relations that appears to be underway, but Dowden was more restrained on the wider China question than some of the more hawkish Tory MPs. He said the UK was “clear-eyed about China”. “What we want is a modern and mature relationship with China based on mutual respect. We’re able to speak frankly when we disagree, but also to work side by side with China on the issues where our interests converge,” he said.
Ed Brewster, 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 politicized, 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, president of Europe and Latin America at Ericsson, one of the few alternative 5G providers to Huawei, said in a statement: “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.”
Many have decried removing Huawei from the network entirely as a step too far. “The idea of ripping it out is Trumpian nonsense,” says Anthony Glees, emeritus professor at Buckingham University and former director of Centre for Intelligence and Security studies at Brunel University. Others including former UK National Security Adviser, Lord Ricketts, have lamented the fact that the US has effectively dictated this policy due to their sanctions.