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Huawei launches charm offensive to fight ‘high-risk’ label

Global communications technology provider begins fightback against perceived high-risk status and stresses its fundamental role in UK telecoms as it finds itself under further attack from UK and US politicians

As it celebrates its 20th anniversary of working in the UK, Huawei has begun a campaign to emphasise the fundamental nature of its presence in the UK’s current communications infrastructure and the role it can play in the expansion of 5G and full-fibre networks.

The timing of the campaign comes as the leading global communications technology provider finds itself under fierce attack once more from UK and US political actors.

The use of Huawei kit in the UK’s networks has been a political hot potato since July 2019, when in its Telecoms supply chain review, 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.

After a long period of wrangling, rumours 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 leading Chinese tech firms from supplying their equipment for the UK’s growing 5G infrastructure.

Yet despite this announcement, the UK government has had to fend off opposition from within its own ranks to the Telecommunications Infrastructure Bill ratifying its decision. On 10 March 2020, it narrowly avoided defeat on an amendment to its bill that would have seen firms classified as high-risk by the NCSC and banned entirely from the UK’s 5G project by 31 December 2022.

Attitudes towards to Huawei seem to have hardened over the past few weeks. On the heels of the NCSC announcing it would conduct a further investigation into the use of Huawei technology in the country’s communications networks, US senator Tom Cotton warned the UK Parliament that the country’s continued usage of Huawei technology in telecoms networks could not only threaten the UK’s national defence but also potentially damage intelligence relations between the US and UK.

Attempting to redress the balance, Huawei vice-president Victor Zhang kicked off the publicity campaign by stressing that Huawei’s role in the UK was long established. He said that Huawei “grew up” in the UK, and was integral in building the nation’s 3G and 4G networks.

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He added that in essence, Huawei’s job was to help make the UK’s telecoms industry and users enjoy better, faster connections quickly, affordably and securely. Specifically, he stressed what he said was Huawei’s commitment to helping to bring fast, reliable, mobile and full-fibre broadband networks to every part of the UK and help Britain achieve its gigabit broadband goal.

A study from Assembly Research in April 2020, commissioned by Huawei, warned that a 12-month delay to achieving the 2025 goal of full coverage of gigabit-capable broadband would mean the UK missing out on £9.7bn of productivity benefits, while a two-year delay would see the UK miss out on £28.7bn. In addition to staying on target meaning a £51.4bn boost, the study projected that if everything remained on track over the next 10 years, the boost could total as much as £68.8bn by 2030.

“As a private company, 100% owned by employees, our priority has been to help mobile and broadband companies build a better-connected UK,” said Zhang. “Britain needs the best possible technologies, more choice, innovation and more suppliers, all of which means more secure and more resilient networks. This is fundamental to achieving the government’s gigabit broadband target by 2025. This is our commitment to the UK.”

While noting Huawei’s commitment to providing the essential fundamental technology, Zhang said that it was also important to address what he said were “misrepresentations” about the company. Huawei, he insisted, was an independent and employee-owned company that was in the country to help the UK reach its 2025 target – and most importantly, independent of governments, about whom Zhang included, that of China.

When asked about the fresh probe into the company and its status as a high-risk firm, Zhang pointed to the UK government’s decision on 28 January to permit the limited use of Huawei technology in the radio access network, a decision he said was “evidence-based”.

“We are working with customers for broadband networks,” he said. “It is essential for the UK post-Brexit and post-Covid-19 to recover under the government’s technology supply chain review. The conclusion of the review was that the UK needed a highly secure standalone [network] that was more resilient and a more diverse supply chain. We needed to work together to set up the highest standard [of infrastructure].”

Zhang concluded by saying that the fundamental priority was to commit to help deliver the UK’s 5G and full-fibre broadband networks and build on the work it had done in this regard with the likes of BT and Vodafone. This work has indeed been substantial. The cost of removing Huawei technology from the operators’ networks has been calculated to be in the region of £500m over the next five years in the case of BT, while Vodafone believes that it will need to spend around €200m over two years.

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