Huawei banned: the risks and benefits of Chinese 5G tech

UK’s mobile providers banned from buying Huawei 5G equipment after 31 December

Huawei conference
Former MI6 operative Christopher Steele claims Beijing tried to enlist Britain’s elite to back tech firm’s 5G network deal
(Image credit: Billy H.C. Kwok/Getty Images)

Britain has banned Huawei from its 5G telecom network, reversing a decision made in January this year to allow the Chinese tech company to play a role in building the country’s super-fast wireless infrastructure.

Digital Secretary Oliver Dowden told the House of Commons that the decision would delay the 5G rollout by a year, adding that the cost of the delay, and restrictions announced against Huawei earlier in the year, would be up to £2bn.

Dowden added that US sanctions imposed on the company in May had “significantly changed” the landscape and that “the UK can no longer be confident it will be able to guarantee the security of future Huawei 5G equipment”.

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CNN reports that operators such as BT and Vodafone have been given until 2027 to remove existing Huawei equipment from their 5G networks. The decision will be seen as “a big win for the Trump administration, which has been pushing allies to exclude Huawei from their 5G networks”, the broadcaster adds.

Huawei said the move was “bad news for anyone in the UK with a mobile phone” and said it may “move Britain into the digital slow lane, push up bills and deepen the digital divide”.

The benefits of using Huawei

Value for money

The overriding motive for using Huawei was financial. The Chinese company is the cheapest option, because Huawei supplies equipment for the UK’s existing 4G network, on which 5G will be partly based. Dropping the firm will necessitate ripping out existing tech, significantly increasing the costs involved.

Quicker connectivity sooner

Using Huawei would have ensured a speedy rollout of increased connectivity – one of Johnson’s stated priorities in government. The UK network’s infrastructure is geared up for Huawei 5G, whereas finding other alternatives and replacing existing Huawei technology will be time-consuming.

The risks of using Huawei

Espionage, back doors and sabotage

The US believes the main problem is that no major Chinese firm is truly independent of the state. American officials say using Huawei’s technology would be “madness” because China would almost certainly take the opportunity to embed software “back doors” to spy on UK communications – and perhaps even sabotage them.

Poor engineering

A secondary issue is whether Huawei’s systems are robust enough and could withstand attacks from other actors. BBC security correspondent Gordon Corera reports that while the UK security services have never found evidence of espionage in Huawei tech, they have been highly critical of the company’s engineering standards.

US might withhold intelligence

Washington has repeatedly warned that it might withhold intelligence information from the UK if Huawei is used in the 5G network. The US is Britain’s closest intelligence partner, with UK agencies relying on its security services to help keep track of hostile states and terror groups. However, according to Corera, the UK government believes the threat to cut intelligence-sharing ties is a bluff.

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Huawei may be only option

Britain already relies on Huawei technology in its 4G network and has done since BT (British Telecom) switched to using the firm’s equipment more than 15 years ago. Meanwhile, Western tech firms have failed to keep up in recent years, leaving Huawei dominant in the world market, says Corera.

Some analysts believe that using the firm for the UK’s 5G network would have cemented Huawei’s position as the global leader – and lead to a future in which the West is entirely reliant on China for its communications.

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