Huawei’s networking equipment is to be phased out of the UK’s 5G networks, the government announced today. Telecoms operators will not be allowed to buy new 5G telecoms equipment from the Chinese firm from January next year, and they will have seven years to remove its existing technology from their 5G infrastructure at an expected cost of £2 billion. The announcement follows a new report about Huawei’s role in the UK’s national infrastructure from the UK’s National Cyber Security Centre.
The decision marks a U-turn from the government’s previous position, announced in January, which allowed Huawei’s equipment to be used in the country’s 5G infrastructure, with certain limitations. Under that position, Huawei would be limited to a 35 percent market share, and its equipment couldn’t be used in core parts of the network or geographically sensitive locations. Now, however, its equipment will be completely removed from the country’s 5G networks.
The UK’s Digital, Culture, Media, and Sport Secretary Oliver Dowden warned that the decision “will delay our rollout of 5G.” As part of the announcement, the government said that it is also advising full fiber broadband operators to transition away from buying Huawei’s equipment.
In recent months, the British government has seen mounting pressure, both domestically and internationally, to phase out the use of Huawei’s equipment entirely. That pressure has been driven by concern from security experts that Huawei’s equipment poses a national security risk by allowing Beijing to spy on Western countries. Huawei has strenuously denied these allegations.
International pressure has mainly come from the US. Huawei has been on the country’s “entity list” since May 2019, meaning US companies cannot sell technology to the company. However, in May this year, The New York Times reported the US toughened its stance with the announcement of new sanctions against Huawei. Under the new measures, which are due to go into effect in September, Huawei and its suppliers, like chip manufacturer TSMC, cannot use American tech to design or produce Huawei’s products. At the time, US officials characterized the move as “closing a loophole” through which Huawei could effectively have previously used American technology.
These new measures could have a big impact on the products Huawei is able to produce, which critics argue could make its equipment less safe to use. The restrictions “will force the company to use untrusted technology that could increase the risk to the UK,” according to a security report that leaked earlier this month.
For example, Huawei’s own HiSilicon chipsets could be impacted by the measures. BBC News reports that the semiconductor industry relies on electronic design automation (EDA) software to automate the process of designing modern chips like Huawei’s Kirin 990 5G processor. However, the sanctions mean that this software can no longer be used in the design or production of Huawei’s chips since the major EDA developers have ties to the US. It makes it difficult for Huawei to produce its own modern top-of-the-line processors, according to BBC News, pushing it towards third-party chips that, it’s argued, could be harder for UK cybersecurity officials to vet.
Meanwhile, UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson is also facing pressure from inside his own party. The government suffered the biggest defeat of its current term back in March, when BBC News reports 38 Conservative MPs voted against the government in favor of an amendment calling for an end to the use of Huawei equipment in the country’s 5G networks by 2023. Increasing numbers of Conservative MPs claim that the equipment poses a national security risk, potentially allowing Beijing to spy on the UK, according to the Financial Times. Although the government won the vote, the incident put pressure on Johnson to take a tougher stance.
Responding to the news, a spokesperson from Huawei called the decision “disappointing” and said that the company is “confident” the new US sanctions wouldn’t affect “the resilience or security of the products we supply to the UK.” It claimed that they were driven by US trade policy rather than security and urged the British government to reconsider its decision.
News of a possible ban has proved unpopular with telecom firms, many of which have already started using Huawei’s equipment to build out their 5G networks. In comments later published in The Guardian, BT chief executive Philip Jansen told BBC Radio 4’s Today program that it would be “impossible” to remove Huawei entirely from the country’s telecoms infrastructure in the next decade and that it would take five to seven years to remove it from the 5G network. Jansen warned that forcing the removal of Huawei’s equipment too quickly could create outages and security risks of its own.
Update July 14th, 8:13AM ET: Updated with response from Huawei and more details from government press release.