Huawei banned from UK 5G network in major government u-turn amid US-China tensions

14 July 2020


Following a technical review by the NCSC in response to US sanctions, the government has announced a reversal of its previous decision 6 months ago to approve Huawei involvement in the development of 5G networks. The requirement to remove all Huawei 5G kit by 2027 will cost around £2Bn & delay the rollout of 5G by 2 to 3 years.

Following the announcement, buying new Huawei 5G kit is banned after 31 December 2020, while all Huawei equipment must be removed from 5G networks by the end of 2027. The existing ban on Huawei from most sensitive ‘core’ parts of 5G network remains. Digital Secretary, Oliver Dowden said in a statement to the House of Commons: “By the time of the next election, we will have implemented in law an irreversible path for the complete removal of Huawei equipment from our 5G networks.”

HUAWEI will be completely removed from the UK’s 5G networks by the end of 2027, the UK government has announced, following new advice produced by the National Cyber Security Centre (NCSC) on the impact of US sanctions against the Chinese telecommunications vendor. Ahead of this there will be a total ban on the purchase of any new 5G kit after 31 December 2020.

The decision was taken today in a meeting of the National Security Council (NSC), chaired by the Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, in response to new US sanctions. These were imposed on Huawei by the US in May, after the UK’s initial decision on high risk vendors, and are the first of their kind removing the firm’s access to products which have been built based on US semiconductor technology. Washington imposed the sanctions amid its escalating US-China trade war, claiming the firm poses a national security threat – something Huawei denies.

Technical experts at the NCSC reviewed the consequences of the sanctions and concluded the company will need to do a major reconfiguration of its supply chain, since it will no longer have access to technology on which it currently relies, and there are no alternatives which the UK has sufficient confidence in. They found the new restrictions make it impossible to continue to guarantee the security of Huawei equipment in the future.

As a result, ministers agreed that UK operators should stop the purchase of Huawei equipment affected by the sanctions. There will be a ban on the purchase of new Huawei kit for 5G from next year, and it must be completely removed from 5G networks by the end of 2027. The government said the decision takes into account specific national circumstances and how the risks from these sanctions are manifested in the UK. The existing restrictions on Huawei in sensitive and critical parts of the network remain in place.

The US action also affects Huawei products used in the UK’s full fibre broadband networks. However, the UK has managed Huawei’s presence in the UK’s fixed access networks since 2005, and says it also needs to avoid a situation where broadband operators are reliant on a single supplier for their equipment. As a result, the government says following expert security advice, it is advising full fibre operators to transition away from purchasing new Huawei equipment. A technical consultation will determine the transition timetable, but this period is expected to last no longer than two years. The government insisted this approach strikes the right balance by recognising full fibre’s established presence, and supporting the connections that the public relies on, while fully addressing security concerns.

Digital Secretary, Oliver Dowden, head of the Department for Digital, Culture, Media & Sport (DCMS) said: "5G will be transformative for our country, but only if we have confidence in the security and resilience of the infrastructure it is built upon.

"Following US sanctions against Huawei and updated technical advice from our cyber experts, the government has decided it is necessary to ban Huawei from our 5G networks.

"No new kit is to be added from January 2021, and UK 5G networks will be Huawei free by the end of 2027. This decisive move provides the industry with the clarity and certainty it needs to get on with delivering 5G across the UK.

"By the time of the next election we will have implemented in law an irreversible path for the complete removal of Huawei equipment from our 5G networks."

The government will now seek to legislate at the earliest opportunity with a new Telecoms Security Bill to put in place the powers necessary to implement this tough new telecoms security framework. It will give the government the national security powers to impose these new controls on high risk vendors and create extensive security duties on network operators to drive up standards.

US President Trump welcomed the UK decision, saying: "We convinced many countries, many countries – and I did this myself for the most part – not to use Huawei because we think it's an unsafe security risk, it's a big security risk."

Meanwhile, China's ambassador to the UK, Liu Xiaoming called Britain's decision "disappointing and wrong", saying in a tweet: "It has become questionable whether the UK can provide an open, fair and non-discriminatory business environment for companies from other countries."

Huawei's Chief Security Officer in the US, Andy Purdy said the move was "very bad news for Huawei", but that the UK would suffer an "even greater negative impact" both financially and on the "equality of service between rural Britain and urban Britain".

Huawei's UK Communications Director, Ed Brewster claimed the ban was a result of pressure from the US, telling the BBC's Newsnight programme: "I think it is clear this is not about security, this is about trade. This is a US campaign focused on attacking our business and attacking the technology and that is because the US is behind on the technology. We are in a long-term... trade dispute escalation from the US around how it wants to retain technology leadership."

Since the US sanctions only affect future equipment, the government has been advised there is no security justification for removing existing 2G, 3G and 4G equipment supplied by Huawei. However, when swapping out the company's 5G masts, networks may well also consider switching to different vendors to provide these earlier-generation services at the same time.

Huawei insisted the move was "bad news for anyone in the UK with a mobile phone" and that it threatened to "move Britain into the digital slow lane, push up bills and deepen the digital divide". The action, however, does not currently affect Huawei's ability to sell its smartphones or how they will run. Meanwhile, the move looks like it should benefit Nokia and Ericsson, which are the two other main 5G equipment vendors.

Chinese media has called for "public and painful" retaliation, with state-run Global Times saying in an editoral: “It is necessary for China to retaliate against the UK, otherwise would we not be seen as easy to bully? Such retaliation should be public and painful for the UK.

With 1,500 employees in the UK, Huawei says that in 2018, its total gross value-added contribution to UK GDP was £1.7 billion (including £287M in direct Huawei investment and procurement, and a further £806M along its supply chain, plus £598 stimulated in the consumer economy) – and that it supports around 26,200 jobs in the UK. And as well as generating £470M tax revenue in 2018, the company has previously committed £3Bn of spend to the UK economy over 5 years to help UK carrier partners roll out fixed and mobile networks, and provide network architecture, sites and stations.

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