The UK Moves Forward with 5G and Huawei but Limits Equipment to Non-Critical Applications

February 08, 2020 by Luke James

The UK government is to allow Chinese tech giant Huawei to play a limited role in supplying the country’s 5G networks.

The UK has relented and announced that it is to let Huawei continue to be used in its 5G networks but with restrictions, despite mounting pressure from the U.S. to block the company entirely. 

A government source said that the restrictions being announced on “high risk” 5G vendors will allow it to avoid “potential risk posed by the supply chain and to combat a range of threats, whether cybercriminals or state-sponsored attacks”. Huawei will be banned from supplying its hardware to “sensitive parts” of the 5G network, referred to as ‘the core’. 

In addition, Huawei’s hardware will make up only 35% of the kit used in a network’s periphery, including radio masts. Huawei will also be excluded from deploying hardware in areas close to military bases, nuclear sites, and other sensitive locations. 


A Final Decision

The decision was finally made by Boris Johnson after a National Security Council (NSC) meeting attended by senior government figures and officials from the UK’s cybersecurity body. It puts to an end more than a year of umming and aahing over whether Huawei’s hardware should be authorised for use within the UK’s 5G networks. 

Although there has been plenty of political grandstanding since Q3 2018 from the UK and U.S. with plenty of reasons to ban Huawei from these networks thrown around, there is also justification for allowing Huawei to play a limited role in the UK’s 5G networks. 

In a statement, Boris Johnson reported that he had spoken to President Trump to explain the decision and that, "The prime minister underlined the importance of like-minded countries working together to diversify the market and break the dominance of a small number of companies,".


Executives from and Huawei at the opening event for the London Huawei 5G Innovation & Experience Center.

Executives from and Huawei (From left to right: Jamie Davies, Bob Cai, Jerry Wang, Tim Watkins and Adam Mynott) at the joint opening of the Huawei 5G Innovation & Experience Center in London. Image used courtesy of Huawei.

The UK Approves 5G Despite U.S. Pressures     

In the days leading up to the UK announcement, pressure from the U.S. began mounting, with the secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, tweeting that the UK faced a “momentous” decision. “The truth is that only nations able to protect their data will be sovereign,” he warned. 

Despite the apparent rift between the UK and U.S., the UK’s Foreign Secretary, Dominic Raab, said that the decision would not have an impact on the UK’s intelligence-sharing relationship with the U.S. and other allies. 

"Nothing in this review affects this country's ability to share highly-sensitive intelligence data over highly-secure networks both within the UK and our partners, including the Five Eyes," Raab told the UK House of Commons.

Huawei has consistently denied claims that it is in the pocket of the Chinese government, and the company welcomed the UK’s decision with Victor Zhang, Huawei’s vice president, commenting that it was “reassured” that it could keep providing 5G tech to the UK. "We agree a diverse vendor market and fair competition are essential for network reliability and innovation, as well as ensuring consumers have access to the best possible technology," Zhang said in a statement.


Getting on with 5G

Although six UK mobile network operators, including the ‘big four’, have now launched their 5G networks and they are relatively patchy. Coverage is limited mostly to major cities and towns and large portions of the country remain unserved.

To achieve their growth plans over the next few years, all mentioned operators will use Huawei’s 5G equipment which has been fuelled by extensive R&D. The operators know this, too; Vodafone’s CEO, Nick Read, has said on record that a ban on Huawei would limit the speed of 5G’s introduction. 

Indeed, the core issue at the heart of this decision is that Huawei is the world’s leading 5G vendor. There are very few alternative providers. Even large European firms like Nokia cannot offer like-for-like 5G solutions at the same rate. Therefore, a full-blown ban on 5G at such a critical point in time would cause significant delays in deploying national 5G networks. 

The UK government has not ignored those critical and skeptical of Huawei, though. It has said that it will legislate “at the earliest possible opportunity” to establish powers for implementing a new framework for telecoms security. Meanwhile, 5G deployment must be gotten on with.