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General Election sees UK government defer ‘high-risk’ 5G tech supplier review

Decision on allowing so-called high-risk suppliers access to the UK’s market for 5G infrastructure delayed due to 12 December poll

In a move that it calls “Nesting a dragon”, the UK government has revealed that it will not be able to make a decision on allowing perceived high-risk suppliers access to the UK’s market for 5G infrastructure before parliament is dissolved on 6 November.

The move was revealed in a letter from the Nicky Morgan, secretary of state for digital, culture, media and sport, to Tom Tugendhat, chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee. Ahead of the dissolution of parliament, Tugendhat’s committee had sought answers from Morgan on when the government would announce its final decision on allowing high-risk suppliers access to the UK’s nascent 5G telecommunications infrastructure.

In July 2019, the government laid before the House of Commons its Telecoms supply chain review concerning access to the network of so-called high-risk suppliers, in particular Huawei. To date, the government has said it has not been in a position to make a final decision because of the market uncertainty caused by the US government placing Huawei on its Entity List for restricted trading on national security grounds.

In her letter, Morgan conceded that although it was this government’s intention to conclude this aspect of the review this autumn, the timetable for the forthcoming General Election on 12 December and pre-election period meant this will not now be possible and that the ultimate decision would be for the next government. Morgan is standing down as an MP at the end of the current parliament.

Morgan added that in the meantime, she and the government expected the UK’s telecoms operators to continue to ensure that they took “appropriate measures to manage security and resilience risks to their networks”. She encouraged them to continue to engage with, and seek advice from, the UK’s National Cyber Security Centre and DCMS officials in relation to cyber security and risk mitigation strategies.

Commenting on the deferral, Tugendhat said he was happy that such a momentous decision that could significantly affect the pace of deployment of the UK’s 5G networks would not be rushed. “Many members have been concerned about the Chinese technological dominance, nowhere more than in the 5G market,” he said.

“I’m pleased to hear that a decision that could nest a hostile state’s technology deep in the central nervous system of the UK communications network will be taken by a new administration after a full debate. This decision has major foreign policy implications as it calls into question our most important security partnership…and our economic relationship with other nations around the world.”

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The decision comes only days after Ajit Pai, chairman of  US telecoms regulator the Federal Communications Commission, presented a two-part proposal that would fundamentally prohibit recipients of the regulator’s Universal Service Funds from using such money to purchase equipment or services from companies that were perceived to be a risk to the US, specifically Huawei Technologies and ZTE.

Responding to Pai’s remarks, Huawei said: “In 30 years of business, Huawei has never had a major security-related incident in the 170 countries where we operate. Banning specific suppliers based on country origin will do nothing to protect America’s telecommunications networks.”

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