US senator urges UK to ban Huawei and co-develop rival 5G technology

(Image credit: Pixabay)

The US is increasing pressure on the UK to ban operators from using Huawei equipment in their 5G networks, arguing that its use could pose a threat to American military interests.

Huawei has been frozen out of the US market on national security grounds and Washington is urging its allies to follow suit. The US government has also imposed sanctions on the Chinese firm, most notably banning American companies from doing business with it.

This is despite the fact that America has not produced any evidence to support its claims, and that Huawei has frequently denied any allegations of wrongdoing.

UK Huawei rival

There are a number of American military bases in Britain while the two countries are members of the ‘Five Eyes’ intelligence sharing initiative with Australia, Canada and New Zealand.

Speaking to the Parliamentary Defence Select Committee via video link, US Senator Tom Cotton said the presence of Huawei technology in the UK could jeopardise these activities if the UK does not reverse its decision to allow Huawei to play a role in 5G. Specifically, he expressed concerns about the security of US aircraft.

Cotton was challenged by some members of the committee who said GCHQ was satisfied that Huawei was not a risk. The use of Huawei kit is subjected to additional oversight by a dedicated unit based in Banbury. 

All four major UK operators are Huawei customers and want to use its gear for 5G. They argue that innovation would decrease and costs rise should they be prevented from doing so.

In January, the government finally confirmed that operators would be allowed to use Huawei’s kit in the radio layer of 5G networks – subject to a 35% cap – but not in the core layer. This effectively maintains the status quo as no operator planned to use Huawei for core technology.

However the US has urged the UK to reconsider its stance leading to speculation that the decision could be reversed. 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. However it was also suggested that ministers have acknowledged a total ban is impossible without causing serious disruption to the UK’s communications infrastructure.

One of the reasons for this is the lack of alternatives, although Ericsson and Nokia are major players in the market for telecoms equipment. The US has previously suggested an American firm could take an interest in one of these companies and Cotton reiterated the possibility that the US, UK and allies could create their own rival 5G technologies.

Huawei said that although it would welcome the competition, it once again rejected any suggestion it was a threat to security.

“Today’s committee concentrated on America’s desire for a home-grown 5G company that can ‘match’ or ‘beat’ Huawei,” said Victor Zhang, vice president at Huawei. “. It’s clear its market position, rather than security concerns, underpins America’s attack on Huawei as the committee was given no evidence to substantiate security allegations.

“We welcome open and fair competition as it fosters innovation and drives down costs for everyone. Over the last 20 years, we have worked hard with our customers and partners for building Britain’s robust and secure 3G and 4G networks and we are now focused on delivering the 5G network to the same high standards. This is fundamental to achieving the UK government’s Gigabit broadband target by 2025. ”

Meanwhile two of the biggest operators in Canada have handed new contracts to Ericsson and Nokia for their 5G rollouts, eschewing Huawei’s wares. Although Huawei has missed out on this round of business, it is still a supplier of equipment for Bell and has deals with other operators.

Bell and Telus’s decision will make life easier for the Canadian government which itself is reviewing Huawei’s role in the country. 

Canada attracted the ire of Beijing after it arrested Huawei CFO Meng Wanzhou in December 2018. She is currently battling extradition to the US in the courts. 

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.