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UK finally publishes telco review but dodges Huawei 5G question

Huawei UK 5G
(Image credit: Huawei)

The government has published its long-awaited review of the UK telecom sector supply chain but has left the decision on whether Huawei should play a role in the UK 5G rollout to the next Prime Minister.

As reported yesterday, publication had been expected in the Spring and leaks that led to the departure of Defence Secretary Gavin Williamson suggested Huawei would be banned from the core layer of 5G infrastructure, but not the radio element. This would preserve the status quo.

However, the issue is as much about politics as it is about technology and has been complicated by the resignation of Prime Minister Theresa May and the Conservative Party leadership election. The process has also been affected by the US decision to effectively blacklist Huawei.

Huawei UK 5G

Last month, US firms were ordered to stop doing business with the company, a decision which means future handsets may no longer receive updates for Google's Android operating system or access its popular applications. The US government’s actions also make it significantly harder for Huawei to source components for its devices.

Although Washington is relaxing restrictions, it is urging allies – including the UK – to follow its lead. This is despite the fact that Huawei is a key supplier of radio equipment to all four major UK operators and that the US has yet to provide any evidence to support its allegations.

“Since the US government’s announcement, we have sought clarity on the extent and implications but the position is not yet entirely clear,” said Culture Secretary Jeremy Wright. “Until it is, we have concluded it would be wrong to make specific decisions in relation to Huawei.”

What Wright did announce was plans to improve security standards and practices across the entire sector. Operators will be required to design and manage communication networks to meet these standards, which will be enforced by both Ofcom and the government. There are proposals to give Ofcom new powers in order to do so.

Security review

“The UK telecoms sector must prioritise secure and safe networks for consumers and business,” added Wright. “With the growth of our digital sector and transformative new services over 5G and full fibre broadband in the coming years, this is not something to compromise on. People expect the telecoms sector to be a beacon of safety and this review will make sure that safety and security is at the forefront of future networks.”

Huawei has frequently denied any allegations of wrongdoing and says the review gave it “confidence” it would be able to work with UK operators in their rollouts of 5G. All four major networks are Huawei customers and there is no desire for any ban as they believe such action would reduce innovation and increase prices.

“After 18 years of operating in the UK, we remain committed to supporting BT, EE, Vodafone and other partners build secure, reliable networks,” said Huawei.

“The evidence shows excluding Huawei would cost the UK economy £7 billion and result in more expensive 5G networks, raising prices for anyone with a mobile device. On Friday, Parliament’s Intelligence & Security Committee said limiting the market to just two telecoms suppliers would reduce competition, resulting in less resilience and lower security standards. They also confirmed that Huawei’s inclusion in British networks would not affect the channels used for intelligence sharing.”