Huawei gets green light for UK development centre

Chinese telecoms equipment provider sets out plans to build an optoelectronics R&D and manufacturing centre in the heart of Silicon Fen

Huawei has received permission to build a research and development and manufacturing centre in Cambridge, UK.

It acquired the 500-acre site for the centre in 2018 and, days after the company was celebrating its 20th anniversary of working in the UK, the first phase of the new Huawei Campus was approved by the local council.

The approval follows more than three years of work and planning. Huawei began the search for an ideal location back in 2017 and completed its acquisition of the south Cambridgeshire site the following year. It began its planning application process in early 2019.

The site, including over 50 acres of brownfield land, is located at the former Spicers paper mill and production facility to the west of Sawston in the heart of the UK’s Silicon Fen.

Huawei will invest £1bn in the first phase of the project, including construction of 50,000m2 of facilities on nine acres of land, and will create about 400 local jobs.

Once fully operational, the complex will become the international headquarters of Huawei’s optoelectronics business, with the state-of-the-art R&D and manufacturing centre focusing on researching, developing and manufacturing optoelectronics products.

Optoelectronics is a key technology used in fibre-optic communication systems and in February 2020, Huawei launched what it said was the world’s first liquid optical transport network (OTN) system.

The company sees its new investment in optical technology as part of a strategy to bring such technology to datacentres and network infrastructure around the world. The first phase of the project will focus on the research, development and manufacturing of optical devices and modules – an integrated model that promises to bring innovation to market more quickly.

“The UK is home to a vibrant and open market, as well as some of the best talent the world has to offer,” said Victor Zhang, vice-president of Huawei. “It’s the perfect location for this integrated innovation campus. Through close collaboration with research institutes, universities and local industry, we want to advance optical communications technology for the industry as a whole, while doing our part to support the UK’s broader industrial strategy.

“Ultimately, we want to help enshrine the UK’s leading position in optoelectronics and promote UK tech on a global scale.”

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The investment will be a major boost for high-tech development in the region, helping to further cement Cambridge as a global innovation hub. Huawei has 1,600 employees in the UK and supplies telecoms network equipment to all the country’s major mobile and broadband service providers, in particular Vodafone and BT.

However, the move is clouded by politics, and the Cambridge announcement comes as Huawei again finds itself under fierce attack from both the UK and US governments. On 10 March, the UK government narrowly avoided defeat on an amendment to its bill that would have seen firms classified as high-risk by the National Cyber Security Centre (NCSC) and banned entirely from the UK’s 5G project by 31 December 2022.

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

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