In what is effectively a huge U-turn to the decision it took only in January 2020, the UK government has made its long-expected decision to remove Huawei technology from the country’s growing 5G communications infrastructure, announcing that it is to commit to a timetable for the removal of Huawei equipment from the 5G network by 2027.
In a House of Commons statement, UK culture secretary Oliver Dowden said the decision was taken after the UK’s National Cyber Security Centre (NCSC) reviewed the consequences of the decision by the US government on 15 May to extend its restrictions on the sale of hardware and software to so-called “high-risk” suppliers such as Huawei, leading to the Chinese comms tech giant not being able to purchase equipment from longstanding suppliers.
Dowden said the NCSC believes that the move has created uncertainly around the Huawei supply chain, and that the UK can no longer be confident it would be able to guarantee the security of future Huawei 5G equipment. To that end, it was making it illegal for UK telcos to purchase Huawei 5G network equipment from the end of this year.
“Today’s decision, however, is about ensuring the long-term security of our telecoms network, specifically in the light of those new US sanctions,” said Dowden. “The security and resilience of our telecoms networks is of paramount importance. We have never and will never compromise that security in pursuit of economic prosperity. It is a fact that the US has introduced additional sanctions on Huawei, and as facts have changed. So has our approach.”
In addition to the ban on 5G technology from the mobile networks, the UK government also investigated Huawei’s place in the country’s growing fixed broadband infrastructure which Dowden said needed to be as secure and resilient as the new mobile technology.
The genesis of the 5G saga began in 2019, when, in its Telecoms supply chain review report, the UK government asked the NCSC to consider issuing guidance to UK telecoms operators on companies regarded as posing security and resilience risks to UK networks, with Huawei and fellow Chinese firm ZTE 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 in totally banning leading Chinese tech firms from supplying equipment for the UK’s growing 5G infrastructure. This move attracted the ire of backbench Conservative MPs who tried but failed to derail the January decision in March 2020, and since then the UK government has come under considerable pressure from the US government for a complete ban.
In June 2020, in an impassioned address to a House of Lords select committee, US senator Tom Cotton warned the UK Parliament that the country’s continued usage of Huawei in telecoms networks could not only threaten the UK’s national defence but also potentially damage intelligence relations between the US and UK.
In his statement, Dowden recognised the realities of advanced communications and noted that while there was no such thing as a perfectly secure network, it was the responsibility of the government is to ensure that it is secure as it possibly can be. He said that that was why the UK government had conducted the telecoms supply chain review to look at the long-term security of the UK’s 5G and full fibre networks.
In attempting to head off criticism of the volte face since January, Dowden claimed that “clearly” since January the situation regarding Huawei was different and that since the May decision of the US government, the NCSC had significantly changed its security assessment of Huawei and its presence in the UK 5G network and that these were material changes that needed to be taken into consideration.
He added that the government agrees with the National Cybersecurity centre advice and that the best way to secure the country’s networks was for operators to stop using what he called new “affected” Huawei equipment to build the UK future 5g networks.
“So to be clear, from the end of this year, telecoms operators must not buy any 5G equipment from Huawei,” said Dowden. “And once the telecom security Bill is passed, it will be illegal for them to do so. By the time of the next election [before December 2024], we will have implemented in law and irreversible path for the complete removal of Huawei equipment from our 5G networks.”
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Yet Dowden also revealed the huge cost implications for a decision that he said had not been taken lightly. He admitted that the decision would have consequences for every part of the UK in that it would delay the national 5G roll-out programme in this country.
He noted that the January 2020 decision to restrict Huawei technology to just the radio access network of the 5G infrastructure had already set back roll-out by a year and cost up to £1bn. Dowden said that the new decision to ban the procurement of new Huawei 5G equipment from the end of this year would delay 5G roll-out by a further year and add up to half a billion pounds to costs. Requiring operators in addition to removing Huawei equipment from their 5G networks by 2027 would add hundreds of millions of pounds further to the cost and further delay roll-out.
All of this said Dowden would mean a cumulative delay to UK 5G roll-out of two to three years and costs of up to £2bn. “This will have real consequences for the connections on which all our constituents rely,” he said.
“And I have to say that to go faster and further beyond the 2027 target would add considerable and indeed unnecessary further costs and delays. And of course, the shorter we make the timetable for removal, the greater the risk of actual disruption to mobile telephones networks. This has not been an easy decision, but it is the right one for the UK telecoms networks for our national security and our economy now indeed, in the long run.”
Regarding the fixed broadband networks, Dowden said the UKL government was taking the advice of the National Cybersecurity centre and would take a different approach to full fibre and older networks.
He said that given that in the UK government’s opinion there was only one other appropriate scale supplier to Huawei for full fibre equipment, it was going to embark on a short technical consultation with operators to understand their supply chain alternatives, so that it could avoid unnecessary delays to the UK’s gigabit ambitions and prevent significant resilience risks.
Dowden asserted that one of the reasons that the UK government was making such decisions was because of a global market failure. “Put simply, countries around the world, not just in the United Kingdom, have become dangerously reliant on too few suppliers,” he said. The UK government would going forward embark on a strategy with three elements.
“First of all, we need to secure the supply chains of our incumbent non-high-risk suppliers, by putting in place measures and mitigations that will protect supply chains and ensure there is no disruption to our networks,” he said.
“Second, bringing new scale suppliers, into the UK market by removing barriers to entry, providing commercial incentives and creating large scale opportunities for new suppliers to enter the UK market. And third, addressing the existing structure of the supply market by investing in research and development and building partnerships between operators and suppliers that will mean operators using multiple suppliers in a single network will become the standard across the industry.”
Unsurprisingly, Huawei UK called the decision disappointing, adding that it was bad news for anyone in the UK with a mobile phone, threatening to move Britain into the digital slow lane, push up bills and deepen the digital divide. “Instead of ‘levelling up’ the UK government is levelling down and we urge them to reconsider,” said Huawei UK spokesperson Ed Brewster.
“We remain confident that the new US restrictions would not have affected the resilience or security of the products we supply to the UK,” he said. “Regrettably, our future in the UK has become politicised; this is about US trade policy and not security. Over the past 20 years, Huawei has focused on building a better-connected UK. As a responsible business, we will continue to support our customers as we have always done. We will conduct a detailed review of what today’s announcement means for our business here and will work with the UK government to explain how we can continue to contribute to a better connected Britain.”
Only days earlier, speaking to a House of Commons Science and Technology Committee, Andrea Dona, head of networks at Vodafone UK, and Howard Watson, chief technology and information officer at BT Group, warned that to rip out long-established Huawei technology from their networks, from not only from nascent 5G infrastructures but also long-established 4G and 3G nets, would cost both firms sums of money in the small billions.
They added that they would need at least five years to undertake the work to avoid potential service blackouts, and not damage both firms’ commitments to further developing a 5G infrastructure across the UK. Interestingly, Dowden’s statement made no specific mention of Huawei 3G and 4G technology currently in use.