U.K. reverses its stand, will now ban Huawei in 5G networks

As predicted by several news agencies, the U.K. has reversed its position on allowing network equipment from Chinese wireless manufacturer Huawei into 5G commercial telecommunications networks.

In January the U.K. government said carriers could only install equipment in their upcoming 5G networks from Huawei and other “high risk” providers outside the network core, and even then only up to 35 per cent of the equipment could be from these providers.

But this morning, Digital Secretary Oliver Dowden told the House of Commons that buying new Huawei 5G equipment will be banned after December 31st. All Huawei equipment has to be removed from 5G networks by the end of 2027.

The government also told full-fibre operators to transition away from purchasing new Huawei equipment.

The decision will delay the country’s 5G rollout by carriers of two to three years and costs of up to two billion pounds. The government hasn’t said if it will compensate carriers. Last week the BBC reported that carriers BT and Vodafone told a parliamentary committee that if — as rumoured — the government wanted the removal of Huawei equipment, including 4G, by 2023 mobile phone users might face disruptions in service.

The government will have to pass a new Telecoms Security Bill giving the government the national security powers to impose these new controls on high-risk vendors and create extensive security duties on network operators.

The decision makes the U.K. the third country in the Five Eyes intelligence co-operative — along with Australia and the U.S. — to take a tough line against allowing Chinese-made gear in 5G networks. New Zealand and Canada have yet to make a decision.

In a statement U.K. carrier Vodafone said “obviously we are disappointed because this decision – as the government has highlighted today – will add delay to the roll out of 5G in the UK and will result in additional costs for the industry. We will work with the government to address the implications of this decision, including the cost and the need to increase vendor diversity through OpenRAN.”

Security Week quoted Huawei saying  the decision threatens to move Britain “into the digital slow lane, push up bills and deepen the digital divide. Regrettably our future in the U.K. has become politicized, this is about U.S. trade policy and not security,″ said Ed Brewster, a spokesman for Huawei UK. “Over the past 20 years, Huawei has focused on building a better connected U.K. As a responsible business, we will continue to support our customers as we have always done.″

Today’s U.K. decision also dashes the hopes Bell Canada and Telus that Canada might follow the U.K. in finding a middle ground against intense pressure from the Trump administration to allies to ban Huawei from next-generation cellular networks for security reasons. Bell and Telus are heavy users of Huawei gear in their existing 4G networks.

For over two years Ottawa has been reviewing its options, saying a decision will be based on security reasons. Chinese network equipment manufacturers have been under suspicion from some security experts for years, particularly since 2017 when a new law obliged Chinese firms to work with the country’s intelligence agencies when asked. Some security experts say that makes Chinese manufacturers untrustworthy, opening the possibility that their gear could be used for spying. Others say governments and the private sector can use mitigation tactics to reduce that risk.

But the detention and later charges by China of Canadians Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor after Ottawa began extradition proceedings against Huawei chief financial officer Meng Wanzhou have stalled that decision.

Because Ottawa won’t be making a decision soon, Bell and Telus have launched their initial 5G networks without Huawei equipment.

Numerous media have reported that the administration of Conservative Prime Minister Boris Johnson has been under tremendous pressure from about 60 members of his caucus to reverse the January decision.

In its statement today explaining its switch, the U.K. government referred to new advice from the National Cyber Security Centre (NCSC) on the impact of U.S, sanctions against Huawei. A new rule implemented May 15th says that no-one can send Huawei-designed chips to the U.S.  if American technology was used in the design tools or manufacture processes. As a result, the NCSC concluded Huawei will need to do a major reconfiguration of its supply chain as it will no longer have access to the technology on which it currently relies, and there are no alternatives which the NCSC have sufficient confidence in.

In short, the NCSC believes the new U.S. restrictions make it impossible to continue to guarantee the security of Huawei equipment in the future.

The NCSC’s decision was detailed in a blog this morning from technical director Ian Levy. He noted that the U.S. rule doesn’t just mean Huawei can’t use design tools that contain U.S. technology. It also means:

  • No-one else can take a Huawei design and turn it into chip manufacture instructions (usually something called a GDS2) using tools that contain U.S. technology.
  • Even if a chipmaker already got the GDS2 for a Huawei chip, it can’t actually turn it into a chip if the foundry process uses U.S. technology or if the GDS2 was produced using U.S. technology.

While the NCSC agreed with the government’s decision in January permitting limited use of “high risk” network equipment in U.K. commercial wireless networks, the American rule hadn’t been passed yet.

“So, it seems that Huawei’s long term ability to build products using state-of-the-art technology has been severely affected,” Levy wrote. “Huawei claims to have stockpiles of parts that they can use, but this obviously affects what the NCSC can say about their products going forward. We think that Huawei products that are adapted to cope with the (U.S.) change are likely to suffer more security and reliability problems because of the massive engineering challenge ahead of them, and it will be harder for us to be confident in their use within our mitigation strategy.”

In Parliament, Dowden told MPs that “what we want is a modern and mature relationship with China, based on mutual respect – where we are able to speak frankly when we disagree, but also to work side by side with China on the issues where our interests converge. Today’s decision, however, is about ensuring the long-term security of our telecoms network, specifically in the light of the new U.S. sanctions. The security and resilience of our telecoms networks is of paramount importance.”

(This story has been updated from the original with the addition of statements from Vodafone and Huawei)

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Howard Solomon
Howard Solomon
Currently a freelance writer, I'm the former editor of ITWorldCanada.com and Computing Canada. An IT journalist since 1997, I've written for several of ITWC's sister publications including ITBusiness.ca and Computer Dealer News. Before that I was a staff reporter at the Calgary Herald and the Brampton (Ont.) Daily Times. I can be reached at hsolomon [@] soloreporter.com

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