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It's official: UK telcos legally obligated to remove Huawei kit

Immediate ban on new installations in 5G networks, all contravening gear must be gone by end of 2027

The UK government has issued formal legal notices to teleco operators instructing them to remove Huawei technology from the country's 5G networks by the end of 2027, though some interim deadlines appear to have been tweaked after operators claimed they needed more time.

This latest move follows the government's decision in 2020 to outlaw the purchase of Huawei equipment for use in networks amid complaints from the industry that this would delay the rollout of 5G technology across the country and drive up costs.

A legal document known as a Designated Vendor Direction [PDF] has been sent to 35 telecoms network operators, according to the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS). This puts the government's previous position to remove Huawei equipment from UK networks on an official legal footing, it stated in its announcement.

Meanwhile, Huawei has been served with a designation notice, informing it that the company has been categorized as a high-risk vendor of 5G network equipment and services. The document sets out all of the reasons for which the government considers Huawei to pose a national security risk.

According to DCMS, the decision is based on guidance from the National Cyber Security Centre (NCSC) that the security of Huawei equipment used in cellular base stations and telephone exchanges can no longer be managed "due to the impact of US sanctions on its supply chain."

It is also widely acknowledged that the UK government has come under sustained political pressure from the US to ban Huawei equipment from its telecoms networks because it is a Chinese company.

"Society increasingly relies on telecoms and the NCSC, government and industry partners work closely to help ensure that these networks are secure and resilient in the long term," NCSC Technical Director Dr Ian Levy said in a statement.

The notice to network operators puts an immediate ban on the installation of new Huawei equipment in 5G networks, and requires them to remove all Huawei gear from 5G networks by the end of 2027, both of which were already expected.

However, previous guidelines from DCMS had specified that telecoms operators had to cease the use of Huawei equipment in their core networks after January 28, 2023. This has now been extended to December 31, 2023.

A previous requirement to limit any Huawei presence to 35 percent of the full fiber access network had also specified a deadline of January 28, 2023, which has now been extended to October 31, 2023.

According to DCMS, these changes were made at the behest of "a small number of operators," for which the deadlines relating the core and 35 percent of the full fiber access network "could have led to network outages and disruption for customers."

A BT spokesperson confirmed to us that it was one of the operators that had requested a longer time frame for compliance with the network core requirement, but denied that it would have led to network outages.

Instead, the company said that it had to ensure that proper processes were followed to ensure the overall resilience of its network, and this had been delayed during the pandemic.

In an official statement, BT said that "the publication of the final Designated Vendor Direction provides important clarity on the process and timescales for the removal of Huawei equipment from UK telecoms networks."

Other requirements for operators are to remove Huawei equipment from sites significant to national security by January 28, 2023, and not to install any Huawei equipment that has been affected by US sanctions in full fiber networks.

Despite the impact from the pandemic, 5G network rollout is progressing steadily, according to CCS Insight analyst Kester Mann.

"With the long-term deadline to remove all Huawei equipment from 5G networks by 2027 still in place, today's announcement will probably have only a minimal effect on the overall deployment of 5G networks in the UK," he told us.

Telecoms analyst Paolo Pescatore at PP Foresight said that this development had been widely expected, but it still remains a huge blow for Huawei.

"The UK government is taking a strong view and remains committed to the original deadline. This will put pressure on some telcos who were more reliant on Huawei kit than others," he said.

A spokesperson for Huawei told The Register that the company was very disappointed by the UK government move, and said it viewed it as a politically motivated decision.

"We've worked with our partner networks for the last 20 years and been subject to a high level of scrutiny with regard to security, and nothing malicious has ever been found," the spokesperson said.

According to DCMS, Ofcom will oversee and enforce the new regulations and will have the power to carry out inspections of operator premises to ensure they are complying. If they fail to do so, the regulator may issue fines of up to 10 percent of a company's turnover or, in the case of a continuing contravention, £100,000 per day, it said.

Meanwhile, the US Federal Communications Commission (FCC) is reported to be readying its own ban on all sales of telecoms kit from Huawei, as well as another Chinese supplier, ZTE.

It is claimed that this would be the first time the FCC has halted sales of equipment on national security grounds; it had previously prohibited US companies from using federal funding to buy equipment from the two suppliers. ®

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