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UK throws Huawei a lifeline, for now

Paul Brislen, Editor. 29 January 2020, 7:09 am

In a rare fit of decision-making, the UK government has announced China's beleaguered telecommunications equipment maker Huawei will be allowed to build parts of the UK's 5G mobile networks - albeit with a number of caveats.

Huawei is under the gun in a number of countries around the world as the US pushes hard to have the company excluded on national security grounds. The US and Australia have both banned Huawei outright from its mobile network builds and pressure has been mounting on allies, including New Zealand, to follow suit. The New Zealand Government Communications Security Bureau (GCSB) denied Spark a permit to build a trial 5G network around Auckland's Viaduct Harbour citing security concerns, forcing Spark to rethink its relationship with Huawei.

In the UK, Huawei will be allowed to build "non-core" network elements in geographic areas that aren't deemed security risks, and can build to a maximum of 35% of the network rollout.

Given one of the key elements of 5G network architecture is its move away from having a "core" network in this way, the practicalities of the decision remain to be worked out.

In making the announcement Nicky Morgan, secretary of state for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, says, "We want world-class connectivity as soon as possible but this must not be at the expense of our national security." 

"High risk vendors never have been and never will be in our most sensitive networks. The government has reviewed the supply chain for telecoms networks and concluded today it is necessary to have tight restrictions on the presence of high risk vendors."

Huawei has long maintained its innocence and separation from the Chinese government. In 2010 it set up a testing centre in the UK to allow government agencies access to its hardware and software to assess whether any security threat is posed. While the UK spy agencies have raised concerns about Huawei's software (which has been described as "shoddy") no obvious security breach has been found at the centre.

However, US politicians are not well pleased by the decision. Senator Tom Cotton, a Republican who sits on the Senate Intelligence Committee, compared Huawei to the KGB.

"Allowing Huawei to the build the UK's 5G networks today is like allowing the KGB to build its telephone network during the Cold War. The [Chinese Communist Party] will now have a foothold to conduct pervasive espionage on British society and has increased economic and political leverage over the UK," says Cotton via Twitter.

New Zealand's GCSB is expected to review its decision in light of the UK's announcement, however the GCSB has been at pains to point out it made its decision independently of political considerations and based solely on security concerns.

Whether this move becomes a bargaining chip in any future US-UK trade negotiations remains to be seen but for now, Huawei has been thrown a lifeline in the 5G market.


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