Ministers have refused to say whether Huawei should be allowed to operate in the UK’s 5G infrastructure, meaning the decision will now fall to the new prime minister.
The long-awaited telecoms supply chain review was unveiled in parliament on Monday, and called for network operators to procure 5G kit from a range of suppliers.
But the government has chosen to hold back a section on the role Huawei should play in the 5G roll-out, prolonging the uncertainty surrounding the Chinese tech giant.
Speaking in parliament on Monday evening, culture secretary Jeremy Wright said that a trade ban imposed on Huawei’s US suppliers by the Trump administration “could have a potential impact on the future availability and reliability of Hauwei’s products”.
Wright revealed that the UK had “sought clarity on its 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 but we will do so as soon as possible,” he added.
Huawei will hope that in the absence of formal guidance from government, operators will continue to procure its technology. A number of networks have already bought 5G masts from Huawei and switched on parts of their networks.
Huawei president Victor Zhang said: “The UK Government’s Supply Chain Review gives us confidence that we can continue to work with network operators to roll out 5G across the UK.”
But the decision is likely to frustrate telecoms executives who had been promised the government would make a decision on the matter after a leak earlier this year suggested ministers were willing to let Huawei provide non-core parts of the network.
The leak aggravated relations with Washington, which has been campaigning relentlessly against Huawei over the last year, claiming the company’s relationship with Beijing raises national security concerns. Huawei has repeatedly denied that it would operate at the Chinese government’s behest.
The decision is now likely to fall to Boris Johnson, who is tipped to win the Conservative leadership election by a landslide on Tuesday (23 July). Johnson has previously suggested he would bow to US pressure to ban the company from 5G networks.
The frontrunner, who has received the backing of Donald Trump, told Reuters earlier this month that he would “not do anything to compromise the ability of our fantastic intelligence services to share information” with the US and other members of the Five Eyes alliance.
In an interview with the Sunday Times ahead of his state visit to Britain in June, Trump threatened to roll back the transatlantic intelligence partnership if the UK followed through with plans to let Huawei operate in non-core parts of the 5G network.
The Observer reported on Sunday (21 July) that Johnson’s allies had urged May to make a decision on the Huawei debate, in light of fears that the US could use a future trade deal to hold Johnson to ransom over the issue.
As well as calling for operators to use a range of equipment vendors, the review will strengthen Ofcom’s powers and create a framework for the use of components. Wright said operators would be required to subject vendors to “rigorous oversight through procurement and contract management”.
Parliament’s Intelligence and Security Committee warned last week (PDF) that banning Huawei could damage the UK’s 5G security by making it overly dependent on two suppliers: “Including a third company – even if you may have
some security concerns about them and will have to set a higher bar for security measures within the system – will, counter-intuitively, result in higher overall security.”
The committee added: “The new Prime Minister will no doubt have many issues to deal with in his first days in office. Nevertheless, this Committee urges him to take a decision on which companies will be involved in our 5G network, so that all concerned can move forward.”