The UK Government has defied the White House and will allow Chinese comms giant Huawei to play a role in the country’s 5G network roll out.
In an attempt to calm transatlantic tensions, there are to be restrictions imposed on Huawei. It will be banned from supplying equipment to "sensitive parts" of the network and will only be allowed to supply 35% of the kit in a network's periphery. It is also explicitly forbidden to supply kit to areas near military bases and nuclear sites.
Following a meeting of the UK National Security Council (NSC) this morning, the UK’s Digital, Culture, Media and Sports Secretary of State Baroness Morgan admitted that Huawei is regarded as “high risk” but that the risk is apparently deemed acceptable:
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. We can now move forward and seize the huge opportunities of 21st Century technology.
For its part, Huawei's vice-president Victor Zhang commented:
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. It gives the UK access to world-leading technology and ensures a competitive market.”
We have supplied cutting-edge technology to telecoms operators in the UK for more than 15 years. We will build on this strong track record, supporting our customers as they invest in their 5G networks, boosting economic growth and helping the UK continue to compete globally.
Business lobby group the CBI called the decision “a sensible compromise” and a good move in terms of enabling the digital economy. But the political fall out on both sides of the Atlantic is only beginning. The main UK opposition party is predictably critical of the decision. Shadow Digital, Culture and Media Secretary Tracy Brabin said:
The Tories refused to take our technological sovereignty seriously and failed to invest in home-grown alternatives to Huawei. As a result they're in the ludicrous position of having to choose between the UK's security concerns and our infrastructure needs. Despite years of dithering, the government still can't tell us how it will restrict Huawei's access to sensitive parts of the network. It must now give specific reassurances to workers and businesses that a 35% market cap will not stop 5G becoming widely available by 2027, as planned - and that it will support communities whose access to 5G will be delayed by this decision.
Meanwhile Tom Tugendhat, a member of the governing Conservative Party and former Chair of the influential Foreign Affairs Committee in the Houses of Parliament, turned on the government, saying that it leaves “many areas of concern” and “many questions unanswered”. In a lengthy post on Twitter, he asked:
As the UK’s 4G networks rely on Huawei, achieving zero presence today would be near impossible so the reduction to 35% is welcome. But will this reduce over time to wean operators off the Chinese provider or will 35% be an enduring figure?
How do we define ‘critical network functions’ and ‘Critical National Infrastructure’ when 5G will enable connected devices? Others have found it near impossible to make the distinction. That will only get harder as we learn the full capability of the ‘internet of things’
Attracting established vendors not ‘present in the UK’ and ‘new, disruptive entrants’ and promoting ‘open, interoperable standards’ is welcome, but given the subsidies Huawei is said to use to get market access, how will new entrants compete tomorrow when they can't today?
Will Huawei be compelled to make existing products interoperable or just those newly installed? This would radically change the speed with which they could be replaced.
The [NSC] Review looked at the vendor’s ‘domestic security laws’. How did Huawei pass given China’s law on compliance with state intelligence services and cooperation with the police in the mass-detention of Uyghur Muslims in Xinjiang?
The exclusion from ‘sensitive geographic locations’ seems near impossible to achieve in densely populated areas and in a world of mobile devices. Overall, this statement leaves many concerns and does not close the UK's networks to a frequently malign international actor. If we're to avoid finding ourselves in a similar position with 6G in the future, we will need to act now.
Over in the US, the decision is beginning to attract comment and criticism. Republican Congresswoman Liz Cheney said:
By allowing Huawei into UK 5G network, Boris Johnson has chosen the surveillance state over the Special Relationship. Tragic to see our closest ally, a nation Ronald Reagan once called “incandescent with courage,” turn away from our alliance and the cause of freedom.
Meanwhile Former Republican House Speaker Newt Gingrich added:
The British decision to accept Huawei for 5G is a major defeat for the United States. How big does Huawei have to get and how many countries have to sign with Huawei for the US government to realize we are losing the internet to China? This is becoming an enormous strategic defeat.
US President Donald Trump has yet to comment, but made his views crystal clear in the run-up to the decision. Clue - he’s not going to be happy with his acolyte in Downing Street. Expect tweet storm incoming!
Fasten your seatbelts - it’s going to get very bumpy from here on in. More to come as the fallout becomes clearer.