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Vodafone CEO warns against Huawei ban as Johnson wades into debate

Vodafone UK boss Nick Jeffery has warned that Britain will lose its position as a leader in 5G if it issues an outright ban on Huawei’s telecoms equipment.

Jeffery’s remarks came as Boris Johnson hinted that he could bow to US pressure to blacklist the Chinese telecoms equipment if he becomes prime minister.

The front-runner in the Conservative leadership race and backed by Donald Trump, Johnson told Reuters today (3 July) 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 last month, 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 UK’s decision to officially limit Huawei’s role in telecoms infrastructure was leaked to the Telegraph in April. The paper reported that the decision was taken by Theresa May in defiance of several cabinet ministers including the home, foreign, defence, international trade and international development secretaries.

But speaking at the launch of Vodafone’s 5G network in London on Wednesday (3 July), chief executive Nick Jeffery claimed an outright ban would hinder the UK’s economic development.

“5G is one of the very few opportunities in time when the UK has the opportunity to be a technology and digital infrastructure leader,” he told NS Tech when asked about Johnson’s remarks. “This has to be something we grasp and make the most of for the prosperity of the country; anything that slows that down would be bad news for all of us.”

Scott Petty, Vodafone’s chief technology officer, said “all of the operators use Huawei and therefore instead of being ahead of the rest of Europe on 5G, we’re all going to slow down” if a total ban is implemented.

“We’ve been working really hard with [the National Cyber Security Centre] and [Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport] on the security we’ve used so we think it’s very unlikely Huawei would be banned from radio access, probably from core, but not radio access,” he added. “But if that was to happen then yes we would need to replace the base stations we’ve already built on Huawei with others, which would slow us down”.

The first deployments of 5G technology in the UK are running through 4G base stations. As Huawei is used in one third of Vodafone’s base stations and it is not possible to add 5G antennae made by one network to another’s 4G masts, a total ban on Huawei’s 5G components would also force the network to rebuild its existing infrastructure.

Having being named as one of the cabinet ministers who had opposed May’s stance on Huawei, Jeremy Hunt, who is fighting Johnson in the Conservative Party leadership election, has publicly backed the government’s stance.

He told the BBC last month: “We take careful notice of everything the U.S. says on these issues. We will certainly listen carefully to what they say. We haven’t made our final decision but we have also made it clear that we are considering both the technical issues – how you make sure there isn’t a backdoor so that a third country could use 5G to spy on us – but also the strategic issues so that you make sure that you are not technologically over-dependent on a third country for absolutely vital technology.”

As well as banning Huawei from the core, the government is also in favour of network providers using a range of technology vendors in each part of the network – a position Vodafone’s executives said they supported.

In a wide-ranging interview with Reuters, Johnson said about Huawei: “It is very important to recognise that there can be significant benefits to investment from overseas in this country and Chinese companies are welcome as much as any other companies but you would not expect the UK to do anything to compromise its vital national security infrastructure and you would not expect me as prime minister to do anything to compromise the ability of our fantastic intelligence services to share information as they do particularly with our Five Eyes partners, so that is the principle that will guide us.”

Huawei has repeatedly denied that its technology presents a security threat or that it would comply with intelligence requests made by the Chinese government. A spokesperson said: “We are proud to be helping Vodafone open up a new world of seamless opportunities with their launch of 5G mobile services in the UK. This reinforces the UK as a 5G leader and builds on our 18 year history of supporting the digital economy here.”