(Pocket-lint) – In January, the UK Government decided that Huawei technology can continue to be used in a limited way in 5G networks.
That decision was reversed in the summer, with an announcement from the UK Government that tells UK telcos to stop installing new Huawei 5G gear and, in a move that will cost them – and ultimately us – billions to ultimately remove the gear they’ve deployed already by 2027.
The date to stop installing the equipment has now moved to September 2021, presumably to give networks time to use equipment they have already bought.
The move is a blow to the UK’s position at the forefront of global 5G rollout – the Goverm,met itself suggests this could delay UK 5G rollout by up to three years.
Mobile UK suggests it will cost the UK economy £6.8 billion to cut Huawei completely out of all UK networks. BT says it would be impossible to do this before 2030 although the Government deadline is the end of 2027.
There are many issues at play, not least the perspective from the US – let’s look at the ins and outs here.
Huawei tech is widespread in UK phone networks
Let’s get one thing straight – Huawei tech is all over the place, both in existing fixed-line and mobile phone networks. Vodafone, EE and Three are all using some Huawei gear in their 5G rollout, with the other – O2 – sharing some of Vodafone’s network.
There’s a difference between having it as a key part of the network (the core network) and having Huawei gear in base stations and masts but even so telcos will have to stop deploying new gear from the end of September 2021 and remove all Huawei 5G gear by 2027.
The UK’s phone networks have increasingly removed Huawei gear from their core networks as security concerns have increased, and fixed-line provider BT Openreach is also reducing its reliance on Huawei gear. Three, for example, has worked with Nokia and Ericsson on its 5G rollout.
Why did the Government change its mind?
For 5G and full-fibre broadband networks, the UK Government review from January 2020 concluded that, based on the current position of the UK market, so-called “high-risk vendors” (of which Huawei is one) should be excluded from all safety and safety-critical networks (including the core of mobile networks) and limited to a minority presence network functions up to a cap of 35%.
However, the UK Government U-turned on its January decision in July 2020. It has told networks to phase out the use of Huawei equipment in the 5G network by 2027 saying “the UK can no longer be confident” about future gear from the Chinese vendor.
It’s a result of the US stopping Huawei from making any products that use US technologies after it earlier stopped US companies from dealing with the Chinese conglomerate. That means Huawei gear will have to use tech which the UK doesn’t necessarily trust. The move was met with approval from the Trump administration in the US.
There’s little doubt that taking out Huawei gear will cost UK networks financially. One of the key reasons that UK networks (as with many other global telcos) favour Huawei gear is that it has been proven to be reliable over a long period of time, as well as being well priced compared with equipment from rivals. It also raises questions over the UK’s overall attitude to China which, before the Huawei order, was focused on having a good trading relationship.
After the January ruling, EE/BT says it estimated the cost as being around £500 million over the next five years. EE was removing Huawei gear from its core network anyway, in favour of Ericsson gear.
How will this affect the UK’s position in 5G?
Oliver Dowden, secretary of state for the UK Department of Digital, Culture, Media and Sport was clear that the decision “will delay 5G rollout by a cumulative two to three years”.
Dowden was also clear that trying to pull out Huawei gear before 2027 would add huge amounts of extra cost – but that might not satisfy many MPs who want rid of Huawei gear as soon as possible.
In a statement sent to Reuters in June, Scott Petty, Vodafone UK’s chief technology officer said: “The UK’s leadership in 5G will be lost if mobile operators are forced to spend time and money replacing existing equipment”
“We are not tied to one supplier, but it is important to understand the extent of what is at stake here” concluded Petty.
What does GCHQ think?
The Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) was previously clear that the construction of data networks really doesn’t have much implication for national security.
According to the official UK Government guidance, “GCHQ have categorically confirmed that how we construct our 5G and full-fibre public telecoms network has nothing to do with how we share classified data.
“And the UK’s technical security experts have agreed that the new controls on high-risk vendors are completely consistent with the UK’s security needs.”
However, in an early 2019 interview with BBC Panorama, the technical director of GCHQ’s National Cyber Security Centre (NCSC) suggested that Huawei needed to up its game in terms of security for its network equipment. Dr Ian Levy called the company’s security “shoddy” and compared it to “engineering back in the year 2000”.
And now GCHQ has changed its advice, caused mainly by the US wanting to restrict Huawei’s use of US technology in its hardware.
A previous report by the Huawei Cyber Security Evaluation Centre (HCSEC) board – yes, there is a specialist Government agency looking at this – said there were concerns about “basic engineering competence and cybersecurity hygiene that give rise to vulnerabilities that are capable of being exploited by a range of actors”. To its credit Huawei welcomed the feedback and resolved to work on the issues in partnership with HCSEC, as it has done with UK bodies long term.
What does Huawei think?
Huawei continues to protest its innocence, initially welcoming the January 2020 UK Government response but in April 2020 issued a strangely-timed letter hitting out at the “groundless criticism” around Huawei’s involvement in the UK’s 5G rollout.
It seems this is particularly aimed at the continuing onslaught from the US Government (see below) and some UK Government MPs who continue to voice dissent at the previous decision to allow UK networks to continue using Huawei gear.
The letter from Huawei vice president Victor Zhang says that the company has good intentions in keeping Britain connected in the present climate. “Right now, by keeping Britain online, we are able to play our part in helping the country through this difficult period.”
“To support the effort, we’ve set up three new warehouses and are redistributing key spare parts around the country to ensure continuity of supply.”
“Despite this, there has been groundless criticism from some about Huawei’s involvement in the UK’s 5G rollout. And there are those who choose to continue to attack us without presenting any evidence. Disrupting our involvement in the 5G rollout would do Britain a disservice.”
In a Guardian interview during November 2020, Huawei vice-president Victor Zhang said that Trump’s defeat in the US should mean the UK re-evaluates the ban, but there is no sign of that happening.
In an interview with Pocket-lint, we asked Huawei’s global chief brand officer Andrew Garrihy about UK 5G and he admitted that“as a brand, there’s no doubt we face some extraordinary challenges”.
“And we’ve been subject to many allegations that are not supported by any evidence. But let me talk about the facts. We’ve been [in the UK] for 20 years providing network connectivity. We’ve helped with 3G and 4G. And we continue to invest really heavily to support our customers.
“The [UK} government in January decided that we could participate in the rollout of 5G. That was a decision based on evidence and it was a good decision that will ensure the UK gets advanced technology. Connectivity has gone from being kind of a commodity that we all tried to get for the lowest possible costs to something that’s actually really important.
What do other Governments say?
Throughout the whole process, the US Government has been clear that it doesn’t trust Huawei and, as has been well-documented, prevented US companies from dealing with it with a trade ban and then moved to prevent it from using US technologies in equipment.
But the US hasn’t presented any evidence for its stance publicly, while it generally hasn’t been able to convince Governments in the UK and Europe – however, Australia and Japan have blocked Huawei from involvement in 5G networks.
In the run-up to the January UK Government decision and afterwards the US suggested the UK’s decision to continue to use Huawei could have implications for sharing of sensitive data. The US presented a dossier to the UK Government early in 2020, but it didn’t register and no details were forthcoming. This continued pressure seemed to work and resulted in the UK Government’s subsequent announcements.
On 5 September 2019 President Trump restated earlier assertions that “Huawei is a big concern of our military, of our intelligence agencies, and we are not doing business with Huawei”. In early 2020 US secretary of state, Mike Pompeo said: “we will never permit American international security information to go across a network that we don’t have trust and confidence in”. This has clearly had some impact on the UK Government, too.
However, Trump’s defeat has raised Huawei’s hopes that the incoming Biden administration could soften its approach. However, several outlets – like the Washington Post – have reported that Biden is “likely to remain tough on Chinese tech”. Indeed it quotes an article from Biden that says “The United States does need to get tough with China. If China has its way, it will keep robbing the United States and American companies of their technology and intellectual property,”
Writing by Dan Grabham.