Decision time in UK concerning Huawei’s role in 5G Networks

Decision time in UK concerning Huawei’s role in 5G Networks

5G is not only about fast internet. It’s about transforming our lives and the United Kingdom for sure. Vodafone, EE and Three have been working with the Chinese company Huawei on developing their 5G networks. But the fear of having Huawei dominating the world of 5G technology has always been under scrutiny.

In 2018, a report published by CTIA, a trade association for the US wireless industry entitled “The Global Race to 5G” shines a light on major key facts. The report recognized China as the readiest 5G country. The US losing this leadership and ranked 3rd leader in the world of 5G technology risked massive job losses and a dramatic contraction of the region’s telecom hardware and software industries according to the report. Recently, Huawei has won 91 5G contracts across the world according to ChinaDaily.

President of the United States, Donald Trump, posted a tweet on February 2019 calling for US companies to step up their efforts or get left behind “ I want 5G, and even 6G, technology in the United States as soon as possible. There is no reason that we should be lagging behind,” said Trump. He added, “We must always be the leader in everything we do, especially when it comes to the very exciting world of technology”.

After being banned from conducting business in the US, Huawei is facing a new challenge in the UK. The US has been conducting a campaign to exclude China from providing 5G services. During an interview with Maria Bartiromo on Fox Business Network, Secretary of State Michael Pompeo said “over the past months we’ve been out around the world just making sure everybody had the same information, that countries understand the risk of putting this Huawei technology into their IT systems”. Huawei, the second-largest mobile supplier in the world, is considered a security threat as it could be used by China for spying via its 5G equipment. Such concerns put greater focus on Huawei’s founder, Ren Zhengfei – his military background and association with China’s communist party. “If a country adopts this and puts it in some of their critical information systems, we won’t be able to share information with them, we won’t be able to work alongside them” avowed Secretary of State.

According to Pompeo, Huawei is offering a cheap deal for these countries and that’s why the world is at risk because better products always cost money.  On the other hand, in January 2020, a letter was sent from the United States Senate to UK Prime minister Boris Johnson referring to Huawei’s 5G bid in the Netherlands that was made in 2019. According to industry experts, this bid does not even cover the costs of a part as it was 60% less expensive to the nearest competitor. This letter aims to persuade the UK to reject Huawei’s inclusion in its 5G infrastructure, referring that the 5G revolution is just the beginning. The Huawei intervention into 5G technology was labelled as an “equipment-centric solution”. This letter mentioned a very important statement. “The more countries do not allow Huawei to participate in their 5G network, the more market space there is for innovators and entrepreneurs to develop competing products”. The letter made it clear. A potential collaboration with Huawei would threaten a potential US-UK free trade agreement.

Despite US warnings, the UK announced late January 2020, that it would allow Huawei to build parts of its 5G internet network. However, the UK government announced that “core” elements of the country’s telecoms infrastructure are to be excluded. Huawei, to be labelled “a high-risk vendor”, would only have access to 35% of the network. Tom Cotton, US Senator for the State of Arkansas, commented on twitter “I fear London has freed itself from Brussels only to cede sovereignty to Beijing”.

Boris Johnson’s government decision would put the United Kingdom in a pickle. How will the US will react if the UK doesn’t follow its rule especially if other countries use the UK as a cover to work with Huawei? In fact, traditional American allies such as Canada, Germany, France, and Japan are considering using Huawei technology as they begin establishing their own 5G network. This would undoubtedly make Huawei a dominant player in the international telecom industry.

Post-Brexit, the UK will be looking to strengthen its relationship with China. On the other hand, the UK will be looking for a trade deal with Washington. US reporter Jonathan Swan posted a tweet on January 28, 2020 describing UK decision as a disaster for UK-US relationship. On the other hand, if the UK chooses to follow the US rules it would risk delaying 5G for years. This will cost the UK an arm and a leg. Only a few alternative providers would be ready to replace Huawei. Ericsson and Nokia from Sweden and Finland respectively.

Huawei seems ready for the challenge. Ren Zhengfei, founder of Huawei told BBC that UK decision won’t affect Huawei investment in the country. “If the US won’t trust us, we will shift our investment from the US to the UK on an even bigger scale and we hope that the UK will trust us even more.”

In March 2020, an unsuccessful attempt to force UK PM Boris Johnson to remove Huawei’s involvement entirely was made. A group of Tory MPs put forward an amendment to the Telecommunications Infrastructure Bill to try and stop Huawei’s involvement in 5G technology. By December 31, 2022, and following this amendment, firms classified as “high-risk vendors” by the National Cyber Security Center would be banned entirely from the UK’s 5G project. The UK Culture Secretary Oliver Dowden tried to reassure the group of backbenchers. He promised that the UK will continue working with its Five Eyes Security partners- US included- to find alternative solutions. Sir Iain Duncan Smith, who has been leading the group pushed this amendment for a vote. According to BBC, 306 MPs from across the house voted against the amendment, defeating it. While only 282 MPs voted in favor of the amendment.

An open letter from Victor Zhang, Vice President of Huawei entitled “Helping Keep Britain connected mentioned that due to Covid-19 data, use has increased by 50%, placing significant pressure on telecom systems. “Disrupting our involvement in the 5G rollout would do Britain a disservice”, said Zhang.

Huawei has always been considered high-risk for the United Kingdom. On January 28, 2020, the National Cyber Security Center NCSC, published guidance for the risk management of high-risk vendors in telecommunications networks. NCSC pointed out that the Chinese State has carried out cyber-attacks against the UK and will continue to do so.

New US sanctions would be a game-changer. On May 24, 2020, the National Cyber Security Center (NCSC) launched a review that will evaluate whether additional US sanctions by Huawei will make it difficult for the UK to use the Chinese vendor’s technology. PM Boris Johnson has told officials to create plans aiming to eliminate the use of Huawei equipment in the national 5G network by 2023. But ultimately, it is impossible to get rid of Huawei equipment by 2023. Instead, MPs are discussing plans to prohibit the purchase and installation of new equipment from 2023.

In a never-ending story, what would the implications be if the UK decides to pull out Huawei from its network? Vodafone have already said that removing Huawei from its network will be extremely costly.