What the UK's Huawei decision on 5G means for mobile services


In a long-rumoured announcement today, the UK government revealed that Chinese technology company Huawei will be banned from the UK’s 5G networks.

As announced by Culture Secretary Oliver Dowden, purchasing any new Huawei 5G equipment will be prohibited in the UK after December 31 this year, and all of its hardware will be removed from the networks by 2027. 

The decision came after the government’s National Cyber Security Centre (NCSC) assessed the impact of US government’s ban on Huawei equipment.

The ban has reduced Huawei’s access to American-made and designed technology, including computer chip designs, which British officials say raises questions about the quality of Huawei kit in the future.

As a result, it has ‘significantly changed’ its security assessment of Huawei’s presence in the UK’s 5G network.

But questions remain about what the UK’s Huawei decision means for customers and businesses – and whether the cost of overhauling Huawei equipment will be funded by consumers.  

Ministers today announced Huawei will be banned from the UK's 5G network with all of the firm's technology to be ripped out by 2027. The move, announced by Culture Secretary Oliver Dowden, represents a major U-turn after the government said in January that the Chinese tech giant would be allowed to help build the infrastructure

Ministers today announced Huawei will be banned from the UK’s 5G network with all of the firm’s technology to be ripped out by 2027. The move, announced by Culture Secretary Oliver Dowden, represents a major U-turn after the government said in January that the Chinese tech giant would be allowed to help build the infrastructure

What does this decision mean?

As a result of the decision, it will be illegal for telecoms operators such as Vodafone and Three to buy Huawei 5G equipment from the end of this year.

All of the Chinese firm’s hardware will then be removed from the network over the next seven years, up until 2027. 

The decision, agreed by the National Security Council this morning, is likely to delay the completion of the country’s 5G rollout by more than two years, and increase costs by up to £2 billion. 

The decision follows fresh sanctions imposed on Huawei by the US government, which has long urged its allies not to use Huawei technology because of national security concerns, which the firm has always rejected.

In a statement, Huawei called the government’s decision ‘disappointing’ and said it’s ‘bad news for anyone in the UK with a mobile phone’, urging it to reconsider.

‘It threatens to move Britain into the digital slow lane, push up bills and deepen the digital divide,’ the Chinese firm said on Tuesday.

‘Regrettably our future in the UK has become politicised, this is about US trade policy and not security.

Purchasing any new Huawei 5G equipment will be prohibited in the UK after December 31 this year and all of its hardware will then be removed from the network over the next seven years

Purchasing any new Huawei 5G equipment will be prohibited in the UK after December 31 this year and all of its hardware will then be removed from the network over the next seven years

‘As a responsible business, we will continue to support our customers as we have always done.

‘We will conduct a detailed review of what today’s announcement means for our business here and will work with the UK government to explain how we can continue to contribute to a better connected Britain.’  

How will it affect mobile phone users?

The decision will not affect Huawei smartphones – only the company’s network equipment that forms part of the country’s 5G infrastructure.

Huawei smartphone devices will continue to work as normal – although some new models, including this year’s Mate 30 Pro, no longer support the full Google Android operating system, as US company Google is also banned from trading with the Chinese firm.

However, experts say the decision will impact consumers, who could end up having to wait longer for 5G to roll out in their area, and paying more for the next-generation connectivity standard.

‘The announcement is a hammer blow to the UK’s ambition to become a global 5G leader,’ Kester Mann, network operator analyst for CCS Insight, told MailOnline.

‘The timing is particularly unfortunate, with the demand for high-quality connectivity never higher due to the coronavirus lockdown.

‘The decision will inevitably lead to delays in 5G network roll-out and higher costs to operators.’ 

What will this mean for telco providers? 

Paolo Pescatore, an analyst at PP Foresight, told MailOnline that the decision will be a ‘major headache’ for most of the UK’s telco providers.

Most of these providers, including the so-called ‘big four’ – Vodafone, EE, O2 and Three – have already started rolling out 5G networks, with Huawei equipment accounting for around 35 per cent of the total infrastructure.

There are other companies providing similar equipment, but Pescatore said it is ‘unclear whether they are up to the task’ of replacing Huawei. 

‘Established rivals like Ericsson and Nokia have been struggling and there’s a resurgence of players like Samsung Networks and Japanese players Fujitsu, NEC,’ he said. 

‘Smaller, fast growing and niche solution providers like Mavenir will all be keen to secure new business. 

He added: ‘In essence, this will have a negative impact on 5G rollout – however, 5G remains in its infancy and the technology has yet to achieve its full potential.

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‘A long road awaits. The business model for 5G remains unproven. Telcos are wary given the need to balance to invest while margins are being squeezed. 

‘Who will fork out for these additional costs and disruption in any service issues that might arise – hopefully not the users.’

Huawei said the decision to ban it from the network was 'disappointing' and risked consigning the UK to the 'digital slow lane' as the firm also claimed its role in Britain had become 'politicised'

Huawei said the decision to ban it from the network was ‘disappointing’ and risked consigning the UK to the ‘digital slow lane’ as the firm also claimed its role in Britain had become ‘politicised’ 

Last week, Vodafone said it would cost billions to rip out and replace Huawei equipment, and would delay the rollout of its 5G network.

Andrea Dona, Vodafone UK’s head of networks, said a Huawei ban would cost Vodafone ‘low-single-figure billions’ to swap out its thousands of Huawei stations and antennas across the country, according to Bloomberg.

But after the decision today, Vodafone said in a statement that it is ‘studying’ today’s announcement by the UK government.

‘Obviously we are disappointed because this decision – as the government has highlighted today – will add delay to the rollout of 5G in the UK and will result in additional costs for the industry,’ Vodafone said.

‘We will work with the government to address the implications of this decision, including the cost.’

In a statement to MailOnline, O2 said its primary partners for 5G rollout are Nokia and Ericsson and that it has no Huawei kit in its core network.

‘Our 5G rollout continues, and we are ahead of schedule.’

Meanwhile, Three said it will fully comply with the government’s decision.

‘We are working through the NCSC guidance to understand what it means for our network investment plans,’ a Three spokesperson said.

‘We have chosen Nokia to be the core network provider and Huawei currently represents less than 25 per cent of our total network sites.’

Philip Jansen, chief executive of EE owner BT Group, said the decision will ‘clearly’ have logistical and cost implications for communications providers in the UK market. 

‘However, we believe the timescales outlined will allow us to make these changes without impacting on the coverage or resilience of our existing networks,’ he said. 

Is the security threat real?

Tech experts are generally in agreement that politics played a major part in today’s U-turn, which comes just over a month after Huawei took out full-page ads in national newspapers promising it will ‘fix the country’s connectivity problems’. 

However, there are genuine concerns that China could use Huawei as a proxy to spy on rival nations and scoop up useful information, according to a MailOnline source. 

‘Given the growing geo-political tensions between the US and China, Washington has been placing pressure on its allies to adopt a similar approach of banning Huawei 5G kit’, the source said.  

Although there is no direct evidence of Chinese government interference in Huawei’s business operations, 5G networks are more vulnerable to state-sponsored cyberattacks than previous generations, because they rely more heavily on software.

Moreover, a lot of the network management takes place in the cloud, rather than on physical appliances, meaning they can be potentially be hijacked remotely if the right security measures are not in place. 

This could, in theory, make it easier for spies to intercept communications or take control of the network. 

Meanwhile, the dramatic expansion of bandwidth that makes 5G possible also creates additional avenues of attack, Tom Wheeler and David Simpson previously wrote for US research group Brookings. 

Small cell sites deployed throughout urban areas can provide ‘backdoors’ into the network, as can the billions of hackable smart devices within homes, offices and connected vehicles.

On the other hand, Matthew Howett, founder of London analyst firm Assembly, told MailOnline that the threat Huawei poses to UK national security is ‘very much hypothetical’.

‘It stems from the fact the US have imposed recent sanctions on the ability for Huawei to use American technology in the manufacture of its chipsets,’ he said.

‘Based on their existing monitoring of Huawei equipment over the last decade, no spying has ever been observed and no so-called backdoors ever discovered.’

Andy Barratt, UK managing director of cyber security consultancy Coalfire, said the outright ban of Huawei from the 5G network is ‘short-sighted’ and that doing business in a ‘globally connected environment’ naturally comes with an element of risk. 

‘The UK has taken a very measured approach towards the company’s technology up until now, with a dedicated testing centre and significant oversight of its operations here – something that Huawei is unlikely to continue agreeing to pay for if we further limit its access to the UK market,’ Barratt told MailOnline. 

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‘The ban doesn’t negate the “nation-state” concern of Chinese cyber interference, but it does arguably reduce the number of tools we have to monitor it.

‘I have no doubt that removing Huawei from the 5G network will set us back, and I question the actual security benefits of doing so,’ Barratt said. 

‘We should move to guard against them effectively, rather than adopt a protectionist outlook that will ultimately limit our technological advancement.’ 

Huawei said the 'disappointing' decision is 'bad news for anyone in the UK with a mobile phone'

Huawei said the ‘disappointing’ decision is ‘bad news for anyone in the UK with a mobile phone’

Dan Ridsdale, an analyst at Edison Group, said there are legitimate security concerns around Huawei. 

‘However, it would be clearly naive to think that the decision was based purely on security concerns, with political and trade interest parties also at play,’ he said.  

‘While any benefits from the improved security may never become apparent, the rollout of 5G networks in the UK will inevitably be slower and more expensive as a result of the decision. 

‘With the majority of EU countries expected to allow Huawei to be deployed in a limited fashion, the UK’s mobile infrastructure may well fall behind that of the EU – at least in terms of capability if not security.’  

What about 3G and 4G?

In today’s announcement, the UK government also said Huawei equipment in the UK’s 3G and 4G networks will not be stripped out, because it is not judged to be a security risk.

But Conservative backbenchers have questioned why Huawei’s 3G and 4G technology was being allowed to remain in place.

‘If they are a risk in 5G why are they not a risk to us generally?’ said former Tory leader Iain Duncan Smith.

Ripping out 3G and 4G Huawei infrastructure, on which the country has relied upon for the past 20 years, would be a hugely costly procedure.

However, if the Chinese government really is able to exploit Huawei equipment for spying purposes, then 3G and 4G equipment could also pose a potential threat – although this is unlikely, according to one analyst. 

Pescatore at PP Foresight pointed out that Huawei is ‘entrenched’ across both fixed and mobile networks and in all generations, from 3G to 5G.

‘Stripping out Huawei will cause huge disruption and put UK in the slow lane of connectivity,’ he said.

‘Ultimately with each new generation of network there is an ever increasing reliance on software. This is the case and more so with 5G.

‘On this basis, the conclusion for now is that the concern firmly resides with 5G and not with previous network generations.’  

Neil Campling, head of TMT at Mirabaud Securities, told MailOnline the government has ‘caved to pressure’ and enforced only a half-hearted approach. 

‘The government hardly covered itself in glory by flip flopping over the process and policy from day one,’ he said. 

‘By the time of the deadline we will have a new government, as will the US who exerted pressure for this policy change, so it may not even be enforced.’ 

Government said Huawei equipment in the UK's 3G and 4G networks will not be stripped out because it is not judged to be a security risk

Government said Huawei equipment in the UK’s 3G and 4G networks will not be stripped out because it is not judged to be a security risk 

Former Tory leader Duncan Smith also said the seven-year deadline for the removal of Huawei 5G technology should be brought forward to five years, as he said there is ‘no reason why’ action could not be sped up.

But the lengthy seven-year timeframe to strip the country’s 5G networks of Huawei equipment, will provide a manageable transition period, according Assembly founder Matthew Howett.

‘[It will] allow operators the time to reach new procurement agreements with other suppliers and manage the logistics of visiting tens of thousands of base stations up and down the country,’ he said.

‘A shorter period would mean the potential for blackouts in service for mobile customers and an even greater bill to the operators and the economy.’ 

Earlier this month, executives from Vodafone and BT told the Science and Technology Select Committee they would need at least five years to completely remove the Chinese firm’s equipment without causing disruption, which could cause signal blackouts for several days. 

Why is it happening? 

Huawei has come under criticism over its alleged close ties to the Chinese state, which has a history of censorship and surveillance.

As an example, the ‘Great Firewall of China’ has become the collective term for Chinese legislation that blocks internet services in the country.

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Under Chinese law, firms can be compelled to ‘support, co-operate with and collaborate in national intelligence work’.

Critics of Huawei have expressed concerns that Beijing could require the firm to install technological ‘back doors’ to enable it to spy on or disrupt Britain’s communications network.

In May 2019, Trump added Huawei to the Entity List, effectively blacklisting the firm and preventing it from trading with US companies.

The ban comes amid ongoing allegations that the company is a threat to American national security – which Huawei has consistently denied.

Trump extended the US’s trade ban for another year this May – a decision Huawei called ‘arbitrary and pernicious’ and one that would damage the global technology industry.

The Huawei ban follows intense pressure from US President Donald Trump (pictured) to deny China a foothold in the West's critical infrastructure

The Huawei ban follows intense pressure from US President Donald Trump (pictured) to deny China a foothold in the West’s critical infrastructure 

The company said the US will cause damage to the global technology industry by ‘undermining trust and collaboration in the sector’ and affect services for 3 billion people.

Huawei has always denied any suggestions of close links with the Chinese state, or that it has ever been asked by Chinese authorities to help spy on others, insisting it fully abides by the laws of each country in which it operates.

Earlier this year, the UK government confirmed it would allow Huawei to have a limited role in the roll-out of the UK’s 5G network.

However, the company was classified as a ‘high-risk vendor’, meaning it could not be used in critical parts of the network – such as military bases and nuclear facilities – and its presence would be limited to 35 per cent of the periphery of the network. 

The decision was met with anger by critics in both the UK and the US, with the latter warning it would consider withdrawing intelligence co-operation from countries who allow Huawei to be a part of telecoms networks.

This June, Huawei published an open letter, published in several national newspapers including the Daily Mail, to promise the UK public it was as ‘committed as ever’ to building internet networks ‘quickly, affordably and securely’. 

By this time, rumours had already emerged that Boris Johnson wanted to back out of the deal to let Huawei build 35 per cent of the nation’s 5G network.

WHY HAS THE UK GOVERNMENT BANNED HUAWEI?

 What did ministers announce today on Huawei? 

The Chinese tech giant’s equipment must be completely removed from the UK’s 5G networks by the end of 2027. Ahead of this, there will be a total ban introduced on the purchase of any new 5G hardware from Huawei after December 31 this year. Telecoms firms will also be ordered to shift away from the purchase of Huawei’s equipment for full-fibre broadband networks over a period lasting up to two years. 

What is Huawei and why is it controversial?

Huawei is a Chinese telecoms company which describes itself as a private company ‘fully owned by its employees’. But it has been criticised over its alleged close ties to the Chinese state. The country has a history of state censorship and surveillance, and under Chinese law, firms can be compelled to ‘support, co-operate with and collaborate in national intelligence work’. As a result, critics of Huawei have expressed concerns that Beijing could require the firm to install technological ‘back doors’ to enable it to spy on or disrupt Britain’s communications network. Huawei has always denied any suggestions of close links with the Chinese state or that it has ever been asked by Chinese authorities to help spy on others.

Why has the Government changed its mind now?

The UK made its decision after US sanctions were imposed on Huawei. Those sanctions effectively banned the firm from using US technology in its 5G equipment. The Government said that means it can ‘no longer be confident it will be able to guarantee the security of future Huawei 5G equipment’.

How will this affect me? 

The US sanctions and subsequent UK move does not directly affect existing Huawei devices such as smartphones, laptops and tablets. But as seen with more recent Huawei releases, such as the P40 handset, restrictions on dealings with US firms means it can no longer provide the full Android experience from Google on future devices, meaning core apps such as YouTube and the Google Play Store cannot be provided.

What about an impact on the rollout of 5G?

Today’s decision means the completed rollout of the 5G network could be delayed by two to three years.   

 



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