The UK has agreed to give Huawei a limited role in Britain’s 5G networks, defying pressure from Washington to issue an outright ban on the Chinese tech giant’s equipment.
At a meeting of the National Security Council on Tuesday (28 January), ministers decided to restrict the firm’s components to the non-core of the networks and set restrictions on its market share.
Under the new terms, Huawei will be excluded from sensitive sites such as nuclear facilities and military bases, “safety critical networks” in national infrastructure, and the networks’ cores, where subscribers are authenticated, calls are directed and data is exchanged. It will also be prevented from supplying more than 35 per cent of components to the periphery of networks, where phones connect to masts.
The decision will be welcomed by Britain’s biggest telecoms companies, which warned that a shortage of viable alternatives to the vendor meant a total ban would have cost the economy nearly £7bn. Boris Johnson had vowed that “gigabit-capable” broadband will be in place across the country by 2025 and some experts expect the government will turn to 5G to meet the target.
But the compromise is unlikely to appease Washington. US officials have been lobbying Downing Street for months in an attempt to lock out the firm from the rollout of the next generation communications network.
The US claims the company poses a national security risk, given its alleged links to Beijing and obligations under Chinese cyber security laws that force firms to cooperate with intelligence investigations.
American officials also believe that the distinction between the periphery and the core of 5G will gradually become redundant as processing is increasingly carried out at “the edge” of the networks, nearer to devices.
Huawei has repeatedly denied that its products pose a security risk and claims that, as a private company, it acts independently of Beijing. Some researchers, however, have questioned who ultimately owns the company, which has an opaque ownership structure.
The decision has split the cabinet, with the home secretary Priti Patel and defence secretary Ben Wallace reportedly having lobbied against Huawei. The Times reported earlier this month that the chancellor Sajid Javid has supported the company, having initially opposed it last year when he was home secretary under Theresa May.
In a statement the digital and culture secretary Nicky Morgan said: “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.
“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.
“This is a UK-specific solution for UK-specific reasons and the decision deals with the challenges we face right now. It not only paves the way for secure and resilient networks, with our sovereignty over data protected, but it also builds on our strategy to develop a diversity of suppliers.”
The US had sent a number of officials to London in the run up to today’s meetings of the National Security Council, while the US President also discussed the matter with Boris Johnson in a phone call on Friday, according to the White House. American officials fear that if the UK approves the firm’s work, other European nations will follow.
But the Trump administration’s efforts to block Huawei began to unravel last year as the National Cyber Security Centre (NCSC), a division of GCHQ, ruled that the risk posed by Huawei’s equipment could be managed. MI5 has reiterated that stance in recent weeks.
The outgoing chief executive of NCSC, Ciaran Martin, said: “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.
“High risk vendors have never been – and never will be – in our most sensitive networks. Taken together these measures add up to a very strong framework for digital security.”
A spokesperson for Huawei told NS Tech: “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.
“We agree a diverse vendor market and fair competition are essential for network reliability and innovation, as well as ensuring consumers have access to the best possible technology.”
How will the limits on Huawei’s market share be enforced?
In guidance shared on Tuesday, NCSC said it expects “all operators to reduce their use of [high risk vendors such as Huawei] to the recommended level within three years”.
This requirement will be set out in law “at the earliest opportunity”, according to the government, and be enforced by Ofcom. Further restrictions on high risk vendors may be put in place once reviews of the legislation have been undertaken.
Telecoms providers may have to remove some Huawei kit from their existing 4G networks in order to meet the target, as the first deployments of 5G will run across older technology and vendors’ equipment is rarely compatible.
How did we get here?
During a meeting of the National Security Council last April, Theresa May planned to ban Huawei only from non-core parts of the network, mirroring the decision made by the government on Tuesday.
However, the details of the meeting were leaked to The Telegraph, allegedly by Gavin Williamson, who denied responsibility but had reportedly been critical of the decision. It revealed an apparent rift in the Five Eyes security alliance as representatives were preparing to meet publicly on British soil for the first time.
When the government finally published the findings of its telecoms supply chain review in July, it omitted its verdict on Huawei. The then culture secretary Jeremy Wright told parliament at the time that the UK would wait to see how US trade restriction on Huawei would play out, warning it “could have a potential impact on the future availability and reliability of Hauwei’s products”.
Over the course of the following months, the US has regularly threatened to withhold intelligence from allies that use Huawei telecoms equipment. But in a rare public intervention, the director general of MI5 revealed earlier this month that he thought the decision would not affect transatlantic data sharing.