Huawei: Ministers signal switch in policy over 5G policy

BBC Technology 30 Jun 2020 04:28
Huawei logoImage copyright Reuters

The government has signalled it is set to take a tougher line against Chinese telecoms equipment-maker Huawei.

A review is under way into how forthcoming US sanctions would affect the UK's continued use of its products.

"Given that these sanctions... are extensive, it is likely to have an impact on the viability of Huawei as a provider for the 5G network," said Digital Secretary Oliver Dowden.

He added he wanted Samsung and NEC to become 5G network kit providers.

They would help make the UK's mobile networks become less dependent on the other two suppliers: Ericsson and Nokia. Mr Dowden said the current situation represented a "market failure".

Defence Secretary Ben Wallace added that the sanctions - which are set to come into effect in September - had specifically been designed to force the UK into a rethink.

"It is a better set of sanctions than the earlier set, and it's specifically clearly designed in a smarter way to put countries that have high-risk vendors - specifically Huawei - under greater pressure."

One consequence of this is that the company could lose access to software it relies on to design and test its processors as well as being able to put some of its most advanced chips into production.

And this Tuesday, the Federal Communications Commission also designated Huawei a national security risk, blocking local telecom companies from drawing on the agency's funds to buy the Chinese firm's equipment.

Huawei denies claims that it would help the Chinese government compromise its clients or otherwise deliberately harm them.

"We have been in the UK for 20 years and remain focused on working with our customers and the government."

The two cabinet ministers were giving testimony to the House of Commons Defence sub-committee.

However, under plans announced in January, current plans are limited to excluding the company from the most sensitive parts of the network - the so-called core - and capping Huawei's market share of base stations and other equipment at the "edge" to 35% by 2023.

Mr Dowden said this might now change.

But he added he was "a little cagey" about providing further detail as final "decisions haven't been made" and "any changes in policy would be exceedingly market sensitive".

Backbench threat

NCSC has previously raised concerns about the "shoddy quality" of Huawei's hardware and the potential for vulnerabilities this creates. But it currently manages the risk by carrying out checks on the products.

NCSC's chief Ciaran Martin told MPs that "the bulk of the analysis" was now done, but that further discussions with DCMS were required before a recommendation could be made to the prime minister.

Committee member Labour MP Kevan Jones raised concerns that the government was being "bullied into doing what the Americans want".

Conservative MP Mark Francois also noted that the government faces a backbench revolt over its Telecommunications Infrastructure Bill if it does not commit to a ban.

"Wouldn't it just save everybody a lot of time if you came to the House tomorrow and put your hand up?"

But the crucial question is whether we are about to see a firm commitment to achieve that "ambition" and within a specific time frame.

While there may be technical reasons for the shift, it would also prove politically convenient amid continued pressure from Washington and backbench Conservatives, as well as deteriorating relations with China.

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