New consultation on legal direction to restrict use of Huawei in UK telecoms networks

UK government is consulting on its proposed legal instruments to mandate the removal of all Huawei equipment from 5G networks by the end of 2027

The UK government has launched a consultation with the nation’s telecoms firms on proposed legal instruments to control the use of Huawei kit in UK networks.

UK telecoms providers have already been instructed to remove Huawei from the country’s 5G networks following the government’s announcement in July 2020 and the subsequent Royal Assent of the UK Telecommunications (Security) Act in November 2021.

The UK government first introduced the Telecommunications (Security) Bill in November 2020 in what it said was an attempt to drive up telecoms security standards and better protect people and businesses from hostile cyber attacks by state actors or criminals. This, it said, has been given even more pressing need by the roll-out in the UK of 5G and full-fibre broadband, bringing increased speed, scale and processing power to digital communications.

The Act’s genesis started when the Trump US government added Huawei to its Entity List on 16 May 2019 with an initial ban aiming to “protect America from foreign adversaries who are actively and increasingly creating and exploiting vulnerabilities in information and communications technology infrastructure and services”. The situation was ramped up with the decision on 15 May 2020 to extend restrictions on the sale of hardware and software to so-called “high-risk” suppliers, principally Chinese firms such as Huawei, leading to the company being unable to buy equipment from longstanding suppliers.

In July 2020, the UK government committed to a timetable for the removal of Huawei equipment from the country’s growing 5G communications infrastructure by 2027, effectively a huge U-turn on the decision it took in January 2020 to restrict Huawei’s presence to just the radio access network element of 5G setups. The decision was said to have been made after the UK’s National Cyber Security Centre (NCSC) said the US move had created uncertainly around the Huawei supply chain, and the UK could no longer be confident that it would be able to guarantee the security of future Huawei 5G equipment.

As a consequence, the government made it illegal for UK telcos to purchase Huawei 5G network equipment from the end of 2020. In the second parliamentary reading of the Telecommunications (Security) Bill, the government decreed that local operators must stop installing any equipment from high-risk suppliers in 5G networks from the end of September 2021. Yet even as it made that decision, the government conceded that there would be a heavy price to pay, mainly by the country’s mobile operators.

As the next step in this process, the government is now required by the Telecommunications (Security) Act to consult with industry on the proposed measures that would bring these controls on Huawei onto a legal footing. The legal instruments the government is consulting on are known as a “designated vendor direction”, which contains requirements that public telecoms providers would need to follow concerning the use of Huawei equipment and services, and a “designation notice” that categorises Huawei as a high-risk supplier.

Commenting on the consultation, a Huawei spokesperson said: “We note the Government’s consultation and will continue to support our UK customers with our network equipment, which is recognised as being among the most secure and trusted in the world. Political pressures have already forced the Government to exclude Huawei from 5G, delaying its rollout by several years. These same pressures will jeopardise the rollout of fibre broadband, unnecessarily pushing up costs for businesses and families. The country has the right to expect decisions to be made based on facts rather than unfounded security concerns.”

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The direction, subject to the consultation that began last week, legally requires telecoms operators to remove all Huawei equipment from UK 5G networks by the end of 2027; to not install Huawei equipment in 5G networks, effective immediately upon the issuing of the final direction; to remove all Huawei equipment from the core of telecoms networks by 28 January 2023; and to not install sanctions-affected Huawei equipment in UK full-fibre networks, effective immediately upon the issuing of the direction. This includes any equipment for which the supply chain or manufacturing process has been altered due to the impact of US sanctions.

It will also aim to reduce the share of Huawei equipment to 35% of the full-fibre and 5G access (non-core) networks by 31 July 2023, six months later than previously announced because of the difficulties providers have faced during the pandemic, and also remove Huawei high data rate intra-core and inter-operator transmission equipment – hardware that sends data across a network without processing it – from all networks by 31 December 2025.

The consultation will last for four weeks and is only open to public communications providers that would receive the direction, and Huawei, as the proposed designated vendor. The UK government considers that preventing any future installation of this equipment addresses the national security risk posed by Huawei in full-fibre networks, but it will consider views from consultees before reaching a final decision.

The government does not expect its consultation and strategy to affect the roll-out of faster broadband. It said the country’s telecoms industry remains committed to the government’s target of bringing gigabit broadband to at least 85% of the UK by 2025.

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