Government delays final decision on Huawei

Culture secretary says he cannot yet make specific decisions about Huawei’s involvement in the UK’s telecoms and mobile networks due to a lack of clarity from the US, effectively green-lighting its use

The government has failed to come to a decision as to whether a full ban should be enacted on the use of Huawei equipment in the UK’s communications networks, effectively giving the green light to its continued use.

Despite running a lengthy review of the telecoms industry supply chain, gathering input from technology suppliers, industry bodies, academic institutions and cyber security experts, digital and culture secretary Jeremy Wright told the House of Commons that the US government had effectively derailed a firm decision through its actions on Huawei.

“On 16 May, the US government added Huawei and 68 affiliates to its entity list on national security grounds… On 20 May, the US government issued a 90-day general licence that authorises transactions in relation to specified areas,” said Wright.

“These measures could have a potential impact on the future availability and reliability of Huawei’s products … and so are relevant considerations in determining Huawei’s involvement in the network.

“Since the US government’s announcement, we have sought clarity on its extent and implications, but the position is not yet entirely clear. Until it is, we have concluded that it would be wrong to make specific decisions in relation to Huawei, but we will do so as soon as possible,” he concluded.

5G roll-outs can continue

Essentially, this means that for the time being at least, those mobile network operators (MNOs) using Huawei in non-core parts of their network, including EE and Vodafone which have already launched limited 5G services, may continue to deploy it.

A Huawei spokesperson welcomed Wright’s announcement, saying it gave the firm confidence it could continue to work with operators to roll out 5G services.

“The findings are an important step forward for 5G and full-fibre broadband networks in the UK, and we welcome the government’s commitment to ‘a diverse telecoms supply chain’ and ‘new legislation to enforce stronger security requirements in the telecoms sector’,” said the spokesperson. “After 18 years of operating in the UK, we remain committed to supporting BT, EE, Vodafone and other partners on building secure, reliable networks.

“The evidence shows excluding Huawei would cost the UK economy £7bn and result in more expensive 5G networks, raising prices for anyone with a mobile device. On Friday [19 July], Parliament’s Intelligence and Security Committee said limiting the market to just two telecoms suppliers would reduce competition, resulting in less resilience and lower security standards. They also confirmed that Huawei’s inclusion in British networks would not affect the channels used for intelligence sharing,” said Huawei.

Delays, leaks and rumours

Labour’s Tom Watson, however, had harsh words for the government, criticising Wright for kicking the can even further down the road.

“This decision must be taken as quickly and transparently as possible, because, whether the government needs to ban Huawei for security reasons or not, the government has a roll-out target to meet: 5G for the majority of the country by 2027”
Tom Watson, Labour

“The government’s handling of the question of Huawei’s involvement in the future of the UK’s 5G network has been defined by one thing: confusion. Rather than this review being published as expected – in March, including a decision on Huawei’s role in our future telecoms networks – we have had a flurry of delays, leaks and rumours.

“The further delay on a decision on Huawei means that this confusion will continue, leaving the telecoms industry without the clarity and the public without the confidence they need,” said Watson, who pointed out that given the UK lags on multiple measures of connectivity worldwide, Britain needed a new model for world-class digital networks, not the current muddle.

“This decision must be taken as quickly and transparently as possible, because, whether the government needs to ban Huawei for security reasons or not, the government has a roll-out target to meet: 5G for the majority of the country by 2027,” he said.

“We need clarity, one way or another, and the government should have a plan B for meeting this target if necessary. This review has provided neither.”

Wise to delay

But Malcolm Taylor, a former senior intelligence officer and currently director of cyber security at managed security services firm ITC Secure, said the government had probably taken a wise decision in delaying a firm decision.

“I think this report, by omitting any mention of Huawei and being effectively generic, speaks to the real problem at the heart of this issue for the UK – that is that, in practice, moving towards a practical and affordable 5G capability without using Huawei is incredibly challenging and difficult,” he said.

“And that is solely without any further use of Huawei; it’s a whole different level of challenge if we were to get to a place where existing Huawei technology – which sits in the breadth of the national non-core network already – was to be removed completely. Industry experts argue that in this case, 5G is years away for the UK. There is likely to be significant economic damage from either of these scenarios,” he added.

Taylor suggested that the issues surrounding Huawei should be seen through the prism of risk management, regardless of what the review said. Accepting that China and the UK have had troubled relations, and that the Chinese state has a hand in many private enterprises, even so the “notably cautious” National Cyber Security Council (NCSC) has conducted rigorous oversight and there was no reason not to believe its conclusions, he said.

“This is a technical issue and a risk management issue, yet a largely political story with roots in the White House. The story hasn’t finished yet,” said Taylor.

Recent developments in the Huawei affair

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