Huawei gets 5G go-ahead in UK, with some hard limits

Prime Minister Boris Johnson and the UK's National's Security Council finally decide on the role Huawei can play in the country.

Katie Collins
Katie Collins Senior European Correspondent
Katie a UK-based news reporter and features writer. Officially, she is CNET's European correspondent, covering tech policy and Big Tech in the EU and UK. Unofficially, she serves as CNET's Taylor Swift correspondent. You can also find her writing about tech for good, ethics and human rights, the climate crisis, robots, travel and digital culture. She was once described a "living synth" by London's Evening Standard for having a microchip injected into her hand.
4 min read

Huawei can stay in the UK.

Omar Marques/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images

UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson on Tuesday gave Chinese tech behemoth Huawei the go-ahead to build noncore parts of the country's 5G network. It's a decision that comes with some serious restrictions: Huawei will be excluded from sensitive geographic locations and will have its UK market share capped at 35%.

As part of the verdict, the UK won't allow Huawei equipment at military bases or nuclear sites, as well as all safety-related and safety-critical networks in the Critical National Infrastructure. Nor will the company be allowed to build core parts of the UK's 5G network. Instead it will be limited to the periphery access network, which connects devices and equipment to mobile phone masts.

"We want world-class connectivity as soon as possible but this must not be at the expense of our national security," Nicky Morgan, secretary of state for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, said in a statement to Parliament. "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 applauded the decision, noting that it has supplied equipment to the UK's telecom operators for more than 15 years.

"Huawei is reassured by the UK government's confirmation that we can continue working with our customers to keep the 5G roll-out on track," Victor Zhang, a Huawei vice president, said in a statement. "We agree a diverse vendor market and fair competition are essential for network reliability and innovation."

The reaction in the US was less enthusiastic. US Sen. Tom Cotton, a Republican from Arkansas who sits on the Senate Intelligence Committee, compared Huawei to the KGB and suggested the US review its intelligence sharing with the UK.

The UK's decision on the future of Huawei comes after more than a year of delays, perpetuated by elections and Brexit discussions. During that time two prime ministers -- first Theresa May, then Johnson -- put off making a decision on the matter.

The drawn-out discussion of whether to exclude Huawei from the UK centers largely on fears that the country would be handing control of its national infrastructure to China. UK networks have long relied on Huawei equipment, but over the past year the country has come under considerable pressure from the US -- which has issued its own ban on the Chinese company -- to reconsider this reliance due to security concerns. The US has repeatedly cited fears that close links between Huawei and the Chinese government could mean the company poses a spying risk, something Huawei has always vehemently denied.

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Earlier this month, a delegation of US officials visited London in an attempt to dissuade Johnson from allowing Huawei to continue having a role in the UK. US President Donald Trump has threatened that if any allies continue to use Huawei, they would put existing intelligence-sharing agreements at risk. Johnson's decision on Tuesday is likely to anger Trump, although the president has not yet reacted to the news.

The UK has a very different relationship with Huawei from that of the US, continuing to allow the sale of its popular smartphones and already incorporating the company's technology in its 5G rollout. UK carriers have been lobbying the government not to ban Huawei, saying that tearing its equipment out of their networks would be costly and time-consuming, significantly setting back the rollout of 5G.

"This is a UK-specific solution for UK-specific reasons and the decision deals with the challenges we face right now," said Morgan.

Analysis from a number of UK security agencies hasn't provided consistent advice on the risks posed by Huawei. Last year, the technical director of GCHQ called Huawei's security standards "shoddy" following the release of a report by the agency in March that rebuked the company for failing to fix long-standing security flaws. Meanwhile, the UK's National Cyber Security Centre said that the country of origin for equipment has no bearing on whether it increases the security risk, and that the best way to create a secure network is to use gear from a mix of companies.

Currently the UK's telecoms infrastructure is provided by the big three vendors: Huawei, Nokia and Ericsson. In accordance with the advice from the National Cyber Security Centre, removing Huawei from the equation could in fact increase security risks. As part of Tuesday's announcement, the UK government said that in line with guidance from the NCSC, it would pursue opportunities to further diversify the supply chain.

"This package will ensure that the UK has a very strong, practical and technically sound framework for digital security in the years ahead," said Ciaran Martin, chief executive of the NCSC, in a statement.

Originally published at 4:16 a.m. PT.
Update at 5:32 a.m. PT: Adds statement from Huawei.
Update at 7:58 a.m. PT: Adds statements from US Sen. Tom Cotton.

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