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UK allows role for Huawei in 5G network

January 28, 2020

The UK government says it will allow a restricted role for Chinese telecoms giant Huawei in developing Britain's 5G network. The US had said it might rethink intelligence sharing with countries that use the technology.

Hand holding Huawei 5G phone
Image: picture-alliance/Photoshot

The British government on Tuesday said that companies such as Chinese tech firm Huawei would be allowed to participate in developing the country's high-speed wireless 5G network, but that they would be excluded from "core" parts of the system.

Under the provisions, the government said "high-risk vendors" would be excluded from all safety-related and critical networks, as well as from sensitive locations such as nuclear sites and military bases.

Read more: Huawei and 5G — it's a minefield

After a meeting of the UK's National Security Council, the government said it was taking steps that would allow it "to mitigate the potential risk posed by the supply chain and to combat the range of threats, whether cybercriminals, or state-sponsored attacks.''

"We want world-class connectivity as soon as possible, but this must not be at the expense of our national security," said UK digital minister Nicky Morgan. "High-risk vendors never have been and never will be in our most sensitive networks."

The government, which didn't mention Huawei by name, also said high-risk vendors would be subject to a 35% cap on access even to nonsensitive parts of the network. 

Huawei said it was reassured by the confirmation that it would be allowed to proceed with its 5G rollout.

"This evidence-based decision will result in a more advanced, more secure and more cost-effective telecoms infrastructure that is fit for the future," said Huawei Vice President Victor Zhang. "It gives the UK access to world-leading technology and ensures a competitive market."

Read more: Huawei stresses 'survival' as US sanctions bite

There had already been speculation that UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson might opt for a compromise strategy after he said on Monday that it was possible to utilize "fantastic technology" for 5G networks without jeopardizing Britain's security relationships.

The US has said that the use of Huawei technology would pose a risk to the "Five Eyes" security alliance of Australia, Britain, Canada, New Zealand and the United States.

Washington has banned Huawei from playing any part in the rollout of its next-generation 5G mobile networks over such security concerns.

A senior official from US President Donald Trump's administration said the news from the UK was disappointing.

"There is no safe option for untrusted vendors to control any part of a 5G network. We look forward to working with the UK on a way forward that results in the exclusion of untrusted vendor components from 5G networks," the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, told the Reuters news agency.

On Sunday, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo tweeted that Britain had "a momentous decision ahead on 5G," a comment interpreted by some in the UK as a veiled threat, also in light of London's desire for a good trade deal with the US after Brexit on January 31.

But with China also a major trading partner, the UK will be anxious to not offend Beijing either.

Huawei workers carry on amid crises on multiple fronts

Johnson has also faced pressure from lawmakers within his Conservative Party to exclude the Chinese company completely. Tom Tugendhat, a former head of the British Parliament's foreign affairs committee, has said allowing Huawei to participate was letting "the fox into the hen house when really we should be guarding the wire."

Huawei already in UK

Britain has been using Huawei technology in its systems for the past 15 years, and security agencies believe they can manage the risk with the 5G network as they have done before.

Read more: German parliament to decide on Huawei 5G involvement

The 5G technology provides ultrafast download speeds and practically no lag between giving a signal and getting a response, both key to implementing technologies such as self-driving cars and remotely operated robots like those used in telemedicine or factories.

Meanwhile, the European Commission also appeared poised to approve a limited role for the Chinese giant, deciding against a blanket ban.

European Internal Market and Services Commissioner Thierry Breton said operators like Huawei would be subject to rigorous standards.

"They will be strict, they will be demanding and of course we will welcome in Europe all operators who are willing to apply them," he said.

rc/stb (Reuters, AP, AFP)

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