Huawei 5G Decision Prioritises Highway to Silicon UK

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The UK government has prioritised future infrastructure needs over security concerns in giving the greenlight to Huawei to bid for contracts to build the country's 5G network.

On the eve of officially leaving the EU (Friday 31 January) and thus able to strike independent trade deals, the UK was cornered into choosing between the markets of China and the US.

Its decision to allow Huawei into non-core elements of the 5G network—mobile phone antennas and base stations—and to restrict its involvement there to 35% of the total is a compromise which will nonetheless please Beijing more than the White House.

From the new Boris Johnson-led Conservative government's point of view, however, it is making good on its pre-election promise to accelerate the country's investment in high-speed broadband.

If the UK wants to be a nationwide high-tech Silicon Valley by 2030 using 5G as the platform to build a post-Brexit digital economy, its government calculates that that this outweighs securing a quick or favourable trade deal with the US.

The decision goes against fierce lobbying from the Trump administration, which calls Huawei a national security threat and which blacklisted the Chinese tech firm last year.

Yet the UK already has significant Huawei technology (about 28% by some calculations) built into its nascent 5G network and the 3G and 4G networks that underpin it. A total ban would have required massive amounts of infrastructure to be torn out at eye-watering expense, and would have set the UK's 5G rollout back by years. 

"It was simply never a practical option to ban Huawei completely, but a restriction to non-core areas of the technology enables the UK to bow in part to the US' wishes," says Lucy Ingham, technology editor at data and analytics company Globaldata.

In its announcement today, the UK government designated Huawei a ‘high-risk vendor' and says it will be excluded from supplying kit to military bases and nuclear sites – although these are restrictions the company is already subject to. 

There is general acceptance that the Chinese-owned company does pose some risk, but the government has concluded that with tightened checks these can be mitigated.

"There is no hard evidence of any espionage using Huawei technology, globally," says Malcolm Taylor, director of cyber advisory at ITC Secure and former intelligence officer for GCHQ, quoted by GlobalData. "The UK's security apparatus believes the risk can be managed. What more do we need?" 

The UK decision has global significance. Germany, New Zealand, and other countries are going through similar debates. Like the UK, they would like to use Huawei because it is cheap and the acknowledged technology leader, but fear the security risks and the wrath of the US.

"Few others though have the technical experience of monitoring Huawei that the UK has built up," observes Gordon Corera, the BBC's security correspondent, in a blog post:

Some people ask how we have got to a position where we are needing to even consider using Chinese technology.

The answer is because Western countries failed to think strategically about protecting or nurturing their own full spectrum telecoms industry over the last two decades.

Companies went bust or were taken over. Meanwhile Beijing pursued a focused long-term strategy to become a leader in the technology.

Naturally, Huawei welcomed the decision. Vice president Victor Zhang said, "This evidence-based decision will result in a more advanced, more secure, and more cost-effective telecoms infrastructure that is fit for the future. It gives the UK access to world-leading technology and ensures a competitive market."

Its decision will be scrutinised in years to come. The opposition Labour party suggest that the government refused to take the UK's technological sovereignty seriously and failed to invest in home-grown alternatives to Huawei—without specifying what those home-grown alternatives might be. 

Swedish supplier Ericsson, for example, has 5G equipment contracts with O2 and Vodafone in the UK. 

Yet its 5G technologies, and those of rival Nokia, are considered either more expensive or less advanced than Huawei's, or both.

Further questions about the UK strategy remain: According to The Guardian, Labour culture secretary Tracy Brabin, for instance, issued a statement demanding of the government: "It must now give specific reassurances to workers and businesses that a 35% market cap will not stop 5G becoming widely available by 2027, as planned-and that it will support communities whose access to 5G will be delayed by this decision."

Right wing British commentator Charles Moore wrote feverishly in the Daily Telegraph that "the Huawei virus will infect us much more widely and far longer [than the Coronavirus]."

US condemnation was swift. Tom Cotton (@SenTomCotton), a Republican senator from Arkansas, tweeted that the decision was like 'allowing the KGB to build its telephone network during the Cold War.'

Nonetheless, with Sec. of State Mike Pompeo expected for a pre-arranged visit to Downing Street tomorrow, the UK government would have been damned whichever way it went and can be applauded for standing up to perceived bullying from the White House.

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