Britain gives Huawei limited role in building 5G mobile network

US says it is disappointed by decision; British security services deem risks to be manageable

LONDON • Britain will let Huawei Technologies play a limited role in building the country's next-generation mobile phone networks, denying a long-running attempt by the United States to have the Chinese tech giant barred.

In a statement yesterday, Britain said it will keep high-risk vendors, alluding to Huawei, out of the most sensitive core parts of the networks but will allow the company to supply other gear that is critical to the roll-out of 5G, such as antennas and base stations.

Britain will also impose a cap of up to 35 per cent on the Shenzhen-based vendor's radio access components, so phone carriers such as BT Group's EE, and Vodafone Group may face a challenge reducing their dependence on Huawei.

High-risk vendors, a category which could also include China's ZTE - which is already banned from Britain - are also to be "excluded from sensitive geographic locations, such as nuclear sites and military bases".

The recommended 35 per cent cap will be kept under review and could be reduced over time, the statement said.

BT is already set to switch out Huawei core network components that it inherited when it bought the EE mobile network in 2016.

"We want world-class connectivity as soon as possible but this must not be at the expense of our national security. High-risk vendors never have been and never will be in our most sensitive networks," British Digital Minister Nicky Morgan said, following a meeting of the National Security Council chaired by Prime Minister Boris Johnson.

In a statement, Huawei vice-president Victor Zhang said it was "reassured" that the British government will let the company keep working with carriers on 5G.

"This evidence-based decision will result in a more advanced, more secure and more cost-effective telecoms infrastructure that is fit for the future," he said, committing to build on Huawei's more than 15 years of supplying British telecoms operators.

The widely-expected announcement by Mr Johnson's government is a compromise between the outright ban on Huawei sought by the US and the access sought by telecommunication companies.

While it ends months of political wrangling, it remains fraught with peril for Mr Johnson as he prepares to end Britain's 47 years of European Union membership.

 
 

President Donald Trump's administration says China could use Huawei to steal secrets and has warned that if London gives Huawei a role, then the US could scale back intelligence cooperation. A senior Trump administration official said yesterday that the US is disappointed by the decision.

"There is no safe option for untrusted vendors to control any part of a 5G network. We look forward to working with the UK on a way forward that results in the exclusion of untrusted vendor components from 5G networks," the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said.

A key pillar of Mr Johnson's vision for a future outside the world's richest single market is a trade deal with the US, and the Huawei licence risks setting up a clash with Mr Trump.

By curbing Huawei's access but still allowing the supplier to play a role in 5G, British officials are betting that they can manage any security risks at home and still maintain intelligence-sharing ties with the US and other allies.

Mr Johnson discussed Huawei in a phone call with Mr Trump last Friday, though his remarks on Monday suggested that he was not swayed by the push for a total ban.

The Prime Minister said that Britain could have the best of both worlds: retaining access to the best technology while protecting the data of consumers.

British security services deem the risks manageable.

For Britain, the timing of its announcement is particularly sensitive.

US Secretary of State Michael Pompeo, who had warned Mr Johnson's predecessor not to "wobble" on the issue, is due to visit today.

 
 

Huawei, the world's biggest producer of telecoms equipment, says that the US wants it blocked from Britain's 5G network because no American company can offer the same range of technology at a competitive price.

The US has argued that as 5G technology evolves, the distinction between the "edge" and "core" will blur as data is processed throughout the network, making it difficult to contain any security risks.

Huawei's equipment is already used by Britain's biggest telecoms companies such as BT and Vodafone, but it has been largely deployed at the "edge" of the network and excluded in the "core" where data is processed.

BLOOMBERG, REUTERS

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 29, 2020, with the headline 'Britain gives Huawei limited role in building 5G mobile network'. Subscribe