UK could stop installation of new Huawei 5G kit if total ban by 2023 is impossible

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The UK government could be ready to perform a U-turn on its most recent U-turn on the role of Huawei in Britain’s communications infrastructure after coming to the conclusion that it would be impossible to remove all of the company’s kit by 2023.

Huawei is a key supplier for all four mobile operators and has worked with BT since 2005. However the government has come under pressure from the US and some Tory MPs to ban the company on national security grounds.

The US has never produced any evidence to support its claims, while Huawei has persistently denied any allegations of wrongdoing. Meanwhile, operators argue that restrictions on Huawei gear will increase costs, reduce innovation, and delay the rollout of 5G services in the UK.

Huawei 5G ban

A decision had been expected in Spring 2019 but was delayed until January this year when it was confirmed that operators would be permitted to source 5G radio equipment from Huawei – subject to a 35 per cent cap.

A ban was imposed on Huawei kit in the 5G core, however this effectively formalises the status quo as no operator planned to use the company for this layer of their networks. The ruling provided certainty for operators caveated by some additional costs.

However last week the National Cyber Security Council (NCSC) said it was reviewing the situation following the imposition of new sanctions by the US. Reports suggested that was that the UK could demand that operators remove all Huawei kit from their infrastructure by 2023.

But now a report in The Times says ministers have come to the realisation that such a task would be impossible without causing serious disruption to the country’s communications infrastructure. 5G leadership has been a priority of the Conservative government, while Prime Minister Boris Johnson made his desire for full fibre rollout known during the party leadership contest last year.

Sources told the newspaper that existing equipment could be allowed to stay in place but that the installation of new kit would be prohibited.

“Otherwise, we’d be asking BT to essentially rip up the entire fibre optic network,” one official is quoted as saying.

A UK government spokesperson told TechRadar Pro: “The security and resilience of our networks are of paramount importance. Following the US announcement of additional sanctions against Huawei, the NCSC is looking carefully at any impact they could have to the UK’s networks.”

As reports emerged over the weekend, Huawei once again denied any allegations of misconduct and reiterated its stance that any restrictions would harm the UK.

“We’ve seen the reports from unnamed sources which simply don’t make sense,” said Huawei vice-president Victor Zhang. “The government decided in January to approve our part in the 5G rollout, because Britain needs the best possible technologies, more choice, innovation and more suppliers, all of which means more secure and more resilient networks.

“As a private company, 100 per cent owned by employees, which has operated in the UK for 20 years, our priority has been to help mobile and broadband companies keep Britain connected, which in this current health crisis has been more vital than ever. This is our proven track-record.”

Via The Times

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.