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UK follows US in banning Huawei from 5G network

Huawei equipment must be removed from the UK's 5G network by 2027, reversing an earlier decision allowing carriers to use Huawei kit in non-core parts of the network.

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- 03:29
Huawei logo

You won't be seeing this logo in the UK's 5G network much longer.

Isabel Infantes/AFP via Getty Images

The UK says that Huawei equipment will be banned from the country's 5G network after all. The decision is a reversal of an announcement made in January, in which the country said Huawei would have its market share capped at 35% and its equipment would not be allowed in core parts of the network.

UK Digital Minister Oliver Dowden made the announcement in Parliament on Tuesday afternoon, after a decision was reached earlier in the day during a National Security Council meeting chaired by Prime Minister Boris Johnson. 

From the end of this year, telecoms operators must not buy any equipment from Huawei, Dowden said. It is "necessary and prudent" to commit to removing Huawei equipment from the UK's 5G networks by 2027, he added, acknowledging it would set back the UK's rollout of 5G by another year and cost the country £2 billion. The government is in talks with NEC and Samsung, as well as existing providers Ericsson and Nokia, to step in and replace Huawei in the UK's network infrastructure.

Huawei decried the change.

"This disappointing decision is bad news for anyone in the UK with a mobile phone," said Edward Brewster, spokesperson for Huawei UK in a statement. "It threatens to move Britain into the digital slow lane, push up bills and deepen the digital divide. Instead of 'levelling up' the government is levelling down and we urge them to reconsider."

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The UK's first decision on the future of Huawei arrived in January 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. Following Johnson's declaration to allow Huawei in January, speculation arose that the government might yet change its mind.

In recent months, Johnson has come under significant pressure from the US government, as well as members of his party, calling for him to reconsider the extent to which Huawei would be allowed to operate in the UK. The US has since announced sanctions on Huawei, banning the company from using US technology, which has increased risks, said Dowden.

"Since January the situation has changed," he said. The UK "can no longer be confident" that Huawei equipment will be secure, he added. "This has not been an easy decision, but it is the right one."

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Among officials, security experts and lawmakers in the US and UK, there are significant concerns about Huawei's links to China's ruling Communist Party. In particular, they're worried about the potential for Huawei equipment in national infrastructure to be used for espionage and surveillance in future. Huawei has consistently denied that there is any merit to these concerns.

"We remain confident that the new US restrictions would not have affected the resilience or security of the products we supply to the UK," said Brewster. "Regrettably our future in the UK has become politicized, this is about US trade policy and not security."

Later on Tuesday, Ajit Pai, the chairman of the US Federal Communications Commission, welcomed the UK's change of heart. "The United Kingdom has taken a necessary step to safeguard its national security as it builds out advanced networks," Pai said in a statement.

Now that the UK has ruled out Huawei from the future of its 5G networks, its next challenge will be to strip the company's equipment out of its existing network infrastructure. UK telecoms companies including BT and Vodafone have warned that this could cost hundreds of millions, or even billions of pounds, with costs likely being passed onto consumers, as well as potentially causing blackouts or security problems in networks. Dowden said he believes the timetable set out for the removal of Huawei kit means there won't be network blackouts as the work is carried out.