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UK government survives rebellion on ‘high-risk’ comms tech supplier strategy

Government fends off rebel MPs proposing an amendment that would lead to an outright ban on Huawei technology regarded as posing a direct threat to the UK’s national security

It was a close-run thing, but the UK government has fended off opposition from within its own ranks to its Telecommunications Infrastructure Bill that places restrictions but not an outright ban on telecoms equipment from so-called high-risk suppliers in UK telcos’ national infrastructures.

In its Telecoms supply chain review, first published in July 2019, the UK government asked the country’s National Cyber Security Council (NCSC) to consider issuing guidance to UK telecoms operators in relation to companies regarded as posing security and resilience risks to UK telecoms networks, with Chinese firms ZTE and Huawei commonly regarded as key examples.

Huawei’s 5G-enabling technology, along with non-4G kit, has long been present on the operators’ networks. If forced to remove Huawei from the network, such as in the many base stations, the operators calculated that the cost would run into hundreds of millions of pounds and would dramatically affect their 5G business case, effectively meaning a refresh of 4G networks to overlay new 5G technology.

After a long period of wrangling, rumour and high-stakes political lobbying, and much to the relief of the country’s telco community, the UK government decided in January 2020 not to follow the US and Australia and ban totally leading Chinese tech firms from supplying their equipment for the UK’s growing 5G infrastructure.

The Telecoms supply chain review concluded that new restrictions be placed on the use of the so-called high-risk suppliers in the UK’s 5G and gigabit-capable networks. The advice was that high-risk suppliers such as Huawei should be excluded from all safety-related and safety-critical networks in critical national infrastructure; excluded from security-critical “core” functions, the sensitive part of the network; excluded from sensitive geographic locations, such as nuclear sites and military bases; and limited to a minority presence of no more than 35% in the periphery of the network, known as the access network, which connects devices and equipment to mobile phone masts.

Though relieved, the UK’s comms industry warned that it would still take a huge hit from the decision. In January 2020, EE network owner BT warned abiding by the UK government’s decision to restrict access to kit from suppliers such as Huawei could have a potential impact of around £500m, while in February 2020 Vodafone calculated that removing Huawei equipment that exists already in its core networks across Europe would cost as much as €200m over the next five years.

Such recommendations were never accepted by a core group of backbench MPs among the UK’s ruling Conservative Party, and former leader Ian Duncan Smith led a rebellion against the Telecommunications Infrastructure Bill, proposing an amendment that would lead to an outright ban on Huawei technology, which he said posed a real and direct threat to the UK’s national security. Duncan Smith’s amendment would have seen firms classified as high-risk by the National Cyber Security Centre banned entirely from the UK’s 5G project by 31 December 2022.

However, even though MPs from across the House voted for the amendment, it was defeated by a majority of 306 to 282.

Chi Onwurah, Labour’s Shadow Minister for Digital criticised the Telecoms bill for being ‘mediocre’ and added that it had risked being derailed by the Government’s failure to deliver on national security and the future of the UK’s telecoms infrastructure and that significant questions remained unanswered.

She remarked: “We’ve been told that the Government will now reduce reliance on Huawei and that a market diversification strategy will be put in place, but we have no actual detail from the Government on what that will look like in practice, how much it will cost and how it will be paid for. The Government must share this urgently. The Culture Secretary has acknowledged that the Government wants to ‘work towards’ ending dependence on high risk vendors in our telecoms networks at all, but without specifics, without deadlines, without plans, these are just words and not cast iron assurances. We must urgently invest in our own technological capability so that our national security and economic future is not at stake.”

Noting the vote almost as it was announced, Huawei commented that it had been disappointed to hear during the amendment debate what it called “some groundless accusations” being asserted. “We were reassured by the UK government’s decision in January that we could continue working with our customers to keep the 5G roll-out on track. It was an evidence-based decision that will result in a more advanced, more secure and more cost-effective telecoms infrastructure,” said Huawei vice-president Victor Zhang.

“The government has examined the evidence and concluded that Huawei should not be banned on cyber security grounds, and two parliamentary committees have done the same and agreed. The industry and experts agree that banning Huawei equipment would leave Britain less secure, less productive and less innovative.”

The amendment vote also comes only days after the UK government announced the formation of a sub-committee to probe the security of 5G networks. Set up by the Commons Defence Committee, the inquiry will focus on the use and security of equipment in 5G networks supplied by foreign companies. It name-checked explicitly Huawei, whose products and services are already used by the UK’s leading telecoms and network providers.

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