In a dramatic reversal of previous policy, the government said it expected the ruling to delay 5G rollout by up to three years and add £2 billion of additional costs to operators.
This could mean higher bills for customers and will inevitably threaten the UK’s bid to be a leader in 5G, which had been boosted by early launches by EE, O2, Three and Vodafone. Culture Secretary Oliver Dowden did confirm, however, that existing 2G, 3G and 4G kit can remain in place until it must be replaced.
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Although Huawei has long been frozen out of the US market on national security grounds, the company has had a presence in the UK for two decades and is a supplier for all four operators. It had been expected that these relationships would continue into the 5G era despite the US government’s calls for its allies to follow its lead and ban Huawei from their mobile infrastructure.
The UK had resisted such calls and in January confirmed that although Huawei gear would be banned from 5G cores, operators could continue to use the firm’s radio gear – effectively preserving the status quo.
However Washington’s ongoing hostilities towards Huawei and recent sanctions that affect its ability to source microchips appear to have finally turned the tide. The decision is a huge blow for Huawei which will now fear other Western governments might follow suit and exclude it from their 5G rollouts.
Ed Brewster, a spokesperson for Huawei UK, said:
"This disappointing decision is bad news for anyone in the UK with a mobile phone. It threatens to move Britain into the digital slow lane, push up bills and deepen the digital divide," said Ed Brewster, Huawei UK spokesperson. "Instead of ‘levelling up’ the government is levelling down and we urge them to reconsider. We remain confident that the new US restrictions would not have affected the resilience or security of the products we supply to the UK.
"Regrettably our future in the UK has become politicized, this is about US trade policy and not security. Over the past 20 years, Huawei has focused on building a better connected UK. As a responsible business, we will continue to support our customers as we have always done.
"We will conduct a detailed review of what today’s announcement means for our business here and will work with the UK government to explain how we can continue to contribute to a better connected Britain."
Earlier in the day, Huawei UK chairman Lord Browne stepped down from his position ahead of the ruling.
Operators had argued that a ban on Huawei kit would increase costs, reduce innovation, and cause serious disruption to 5G rollouts. An independent assessment from Assembly Research had suggested the a delay in roll out could cost the UK economy up to £6.8 billion and lead to delays of up to two years.
However most carriers seemed resigned to the fact that a ban would be issued and more recently turned their attention to minimising the impact of any restrictions. Given that telecoms equipment has a limited shelf-life of less than a decade, it was hoped that any requirement to remove kit could be integrated into planned upgrade programmes, minimising costs and disruption.
Vodafone had claimed the bill for stripping out networking equipment could run into the billions, while BT CEO Philip Jansen had warned an accelerated timeframe could harm 5G and fibre rollouts, exacerbate potential security issues and even cause service interruptions.
“If we get in a situation where things need to go very, very fast then you’re into a situation where potentially service for 24 million BT Group mobile customers is put into question,” he told BBC Radio 4. “Outages would be possible.”
Culture Secretary Oliver Dowden accepted the difficulties of an accelerated timetable and the additional cost and gave these as reasons for the 2027 deadline. Whether this explanation is enough to placate Tory backbenchers remains to be seen.
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Steve McCaskill is TechRadar Pro's resident mobile industry expert, covering all aspects of the UK and global news, from operators to service providers and everything in between. He is a former editor of Silicon UK and journalist with over a decade's experience in the technology industry, writing about technology, in particular, telecoms, mobile and sports tech, sports, video games and media.