Government Bans Huawei Kit from Core UK 5G Mobile Networks

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Mobile operators Three UKVodafoneEE(BT) and O2 will today be officially told by the Government that they will be banned from deploying hardware and software from Chinese tech giant Huawei into the core of their future 5G based mobile broadband network, although non-core 5G kit (antennas etc.) will be exempt.

The final decision was taken by the UK Prime Minister, Theresa May, although it’s understood that a number of her cabinet colleagues (e.g. Home Secretary Sajid Javid MP, Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt MP and Defence Secretary Gavin Williamson MP) had been calling for a much more aggressive total ban.

The move follows a recent report from the oversight board of the Huawei Cyber Security Evaluation Centre (HCSEC), which warned that “further significant technical issues” had been identified in Huawei’s engineering processes, leading to “new risks in the UK telecommunications networks” (full summary). At the same time, it also said that “no material progress has been made by Huawei in the remediation of the issues.”

The board said it could “only provide limited assurance” that all risks to national security from Huawei’s involvement in the UK’s critical networks could be sufficiently mitigated long-term. Naturally, Huawei has always denied accusations that they are a security threat and in a public letter said, “Huawei has never and will never use UK-based hardware, software, or information gathered in the UK or anywhere else globally, to assist other countries in gathering intelligence. We would not do this in any country.”

However, critics of the company often point toward China’s new National Intelligence Law, which was passed in 2017 and demands that organisations “support, co-operate with and collaborate in national intelligence work.” The absence of true democracy in China might thus, they argue, makes it very difficult for any company to refuse such a request.

Margot James, UK Minister for Digital, said:

“The National Cyber Security Centre is respected the world over, their advice is that we can manage/minimise any risk Huawei might pose to telecoms infrastructure and Theresa May is absolutely right to act on that advice.”

The move puts the UK at odds with the USA, which has taken a much stricter line and even threatened to cease the exchange of secret intelligence information with countries that allow kit from Huawei into their core networks. The PM will no doubt be hoping that her partial ban is enough to avoid such an outcome.

The difficulty for telecoms operators is that Huawei makes a very good and affordable kit. A lot of operators and broadband ISPs had already planned to work closely with the Chinese firm in order to deploy new networks (e.g. 5G and fibre broadband) and any new restrictions would thus impact their plans (i.e. the potential for much higher costs, worse performance and significantly slower roll-out).

On the other hand, BT (EE) has already confirmed that they’re removing the related kit from their core mobile network (here) and Vodafone has “paused” deployments, albeit reluctantly, into their core network (here). So far none of the operators has applied such measures to the less sensitive non-core part of their networks.

On the surface, today’s announcement doesn’t appear to mention existing 4G deployments, although operators have long warned that they can’t do 4G without 5G and any impact on the supply chain would thus have far-reaching consequences. We’ll be asking for the mobile operator’s feedback on this decision and will update again later.

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