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July? British government could decide to boot Chinese giant Huawei from the UK's networks by this month

NCSC will make the call, says UK digital secretary

After months of dilly dallying, the UK government has said it will finally decide this month whether Huawei should be booted out of Blighty’s nascent 5G network, according to Culture Secretary Oliver Dowden.

Speaking on London talk radio station LBC Radio this morning, Dowden raised the possibility that crippling US sanctions have undermined its reliability as a vendor.

“In relation to Huawei, we’ve had these US sanctions that were imposed a couple of months ago. I’ve asked the National Cyber Security Centre to analyse the impact of them,” he said.

“It seems likely they’re going to have a significant impact on the reliability of Huawei. I’ve just received that advice. I will be discussing that with the prime minister [Boris Johnson] and if there’s any change of policy arising from it I will make an announcement.”

Dowden added that any policy shift would be issued later this month, before Parliament breaks for its summer recess.

If the UK government opts to ban Huawei entirely, following mounting pressure from US politicians, cellular providers will inevitably be forced to change their procurement plans, replacing upcoming Huawei installations with infrastructure from rival vendors like Ericsson and Nokia.

Telcos are currently banned from using equipment from so-called “high risk” vendors like ZTE and Huawei in the sensitive core network. They are, however, permitted to use cheaper Chinese kit in the fringes of their 5G networks, like the RAN — up to a maximum of 35 per cent of the installed equipment.

More recently, ministers were said to be considering plans to slash Huawei usage to zero in the next three years.

The latest emission from Dowden looks to speed up that schedule.

Limitations already imposed on UK networks that necessitate telcos to replace existing Huawei-made equipment on the fringes of the 5G core promises to be an expensive ordeal. BT estimated a cost of £500m (including its mobile and fixed-line networks), while Vodafone estimated its hit would be around €200m (including its European networks). Those costs will rise significantly higher if a new stricter ruling is introduced.

Speaking to The Register, telecoms analyst Paolo Pescatore described a ban on Huawei's networking equipment as "increasingly likely."

"This was unthinkable a few years ago and underlines how things can change so quickly. There are different scenarios from a gradual phasing out, to a ban on purchasing new equipment and ultimately stripping out existing Huawei kit entirely," he added.

Huawei is in an unenviable position. It is perhaps the most recognisable Chinese technology firm, and is operating during a time when friction between China and the West is at an all-time high. And while Huawei is trying to persuade the UK that it's an independent private entity, with company director Sir Kenneth Olisa describing it as being what BAE Systems is to Westminster, those pleas have fallen on deaf ears. Consequently, national security concerns have overshadowed any potential technological or cost advantages of using Huawei's equipment.

In a statement, Victor Zhang, vice president of Huawei, said: "We are working closely with our customers to find ways of managing the proposed US restrictions so the UK can maintain its current lead in 5G. As ever, we remain open to discussions with the Government."

"We believe it is too early to determine the impact of the proposed restrictions, which are not about security, but about market position."

"All our world-leading products and solutions use technology and components over which the UK government has strict oversight. Our technology is already extensively used in 5G networks across the country and has helped connect people throughout lockdown.”

Regardless of where you stand, the point can be made that the pandemic has made mobile broadband, specifically, even more vital to many economies, not least the UK's. The move to next gen 5G will only accelerate this. ®

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