The U.K. government has confirmed a ban on using equipment from Chinese supplier Huawei in 5G networks, due to national security risks. Under the new plan, U.K. operators will be barred from acquiring new Huawei 5G equipment after 31 December 2020 and will have until the end of 2027 to replace existing Huawei equipment in their 5G networks. The government also plans to recommend that fiber networks not use Huawei equipment.
In January the U.K. decided to exclude so-called high-risk vendors from core parts of the country’s 5G networks and limit the role of risky suppliers in other parts of mobile networks. Huawei was expected to fall under the designation of high-risk vendors, after having already been subject to increased security checks in the U.K. for several years.
The government sought new advice from the National Cyber Security Centre (NCSC) after the U.S. imposed new sanctions against Huawei in May. These sanctions are expected to limit the company’s access to components from U.S.-based suppliers and increase its reliance on Chinese elements. The NCSC found that “there are no alternatives [to U.S. suppliers] which we have sufficient confidence in,” and this makes it “impossible to continue to guarantee the security of Huawei equipment in the future,” according to the U.K.’s digital secretary, Oliver Dowden.
After having resisted U.S. pressure to eliminate Huawei components from its 5G infrastructure, the U.K. has decided to comply with the Trump administration’s demands on the matter. Two main factors were at work here. For one, Prime Minister Boris Johnson was under pressure from members of his Conservative party to take a harder line against China. And for another, the U.S. sanctions affecting Huawei’s supply chain isolated the Chinese manufacturer and made its components even harder to trust.
Although there is a good deal of Huawei technology already in place in 5G network infrastructure in the U.K., the ban on any further use of it beginning with the start of 2021 is certain to have a major effect on the country’s rollout of the high-speed technology, and on mobile operators. Digital Secretary Dowden, in remarks announcing the ban, did not shy away from mentioning the negative consequences. He said that the decision would delay the roll-out of 5G networks by around a year—on top of the year’s delay already caused by the imposition of restrictions on “core” parts of the networks back in January—and add up to £500 million (US $627 million) in costs. Dowden also said that requiring operators also to scrap existing Huawei equipment by 2027 will increase the bill by around £2 billion (US $2.5 billion) and extend the delay in 5G networks to two to three years, although he added that the 2027 deadline should provide enough time to ensure there are no disruptions to services.
Whether the ban and the phase-out will ultimately protect the U.K. against cyber-intrusions from China remains to be seen, of course. The connected mobile world is an exceedingly complex place, and technology is constantly changing. In any case, though, the present policy will have the effect of bolstering the business of 5G equipment suppliers outside China, such as Nokia and Ericsson, and even of promoting further innovation among them.