Stay up to date with notifications from The Independent

Notifications can be managed in browser preferences.

Boris Johnson risks wrath of Trump by approving Huawei to help build UK 5G network

Chinese firm will only be involved in ‘periphery of the network’, officials insist – and its market share capped at 35 per cent

Andrew Woodcock,Rob Merrick
Tuesday 28 January 2020 13:01 GMT
Huawei and the UK's 5G network explained

Boris Johnson has come under fire from Washington and from his own backbenches after giving the go-ahead for Chinese tech giant Huawei to help build the UK’s 5G and full-fibre broadband networks.

In a move which puts the prime minister on collision course with Donald Trump, a meeting of the National Security Council (NSC) chaired by Mr Johnson agreed Huawei’s involvement on the “periphery” of the 5G project, capping its market share by law at 35 per cent.

Whitehall sources insisted that the decision did not affect the UK’s ability to share intelligence material with allies via secure communications links which are entirely separate from the public telecoms network. Huawei will be barred from the "core" elements of 5G and kept away from sensitive locations like nuclear sites and military bases.

Banning Huawei would have cost the UK tens of billions of pounds, delaying by two or three years the implementation of 5G technology, which will dramatically increase the capacity of mobile networks and underpin the widespread introduction of artificial intelligence and driverless cars, the sources said.

But the development was greeted with howls of protest in the US congress, where Republican former presidential candidate Mitt Romney urged the PM to reverse the “disconcerting” development.

“By prioritising costs, the UK is sacrificing national security and inviting the CCP’s [Chinese Communist Party’s] surveillance state in,” warned Mr Romney. “I implore our British allies to reverse their decision.”

Republican senator Tom Cotton said the UK opening the door to Huawei was “like allowing the KGB to build its telephone network during the Cold War” and called for an official review of US/UK intelligence-sharing, while Democrat Ruben Gallego said it was “irresponsible for our British friends to risk their national security and ours... for the sake of a few bucks”.

Meanwhile, in the House of Commons, former Tory leader Iain Duncan Smith declared himself “deeply disappointed” by the decision, while ex-cabinet minister David Davis said Huawei should be “banned from our networks” as Chinese law “requires it to take instruction from the Chinese intelligence agency”.

A UK security source insisted that Britain had received “no threats of withdrawal of cooperation” from its partners in the Five Eyes intelligence alliance, which includes the US, Canada, Australia and New Zealand.

President Trump has previously suggested that allowing Huawei access to sensitive telecommunications networks could cast into question American willingness to share intelligence, while a recent delegation from Washington warned it would be “madness” for the UK to involve the company in its 5G network.

Mr Johnson called Mr Trump to update him on the decision, and to press the case for western allies to work together to diversify the market for hi-tech telecoms equipment and “break the dominance of a small number of companies” in the sector.

London is blaming a “market failure” for putting the UK in a situation where alternative suppliers like Sweden’s Ericsson and Finland’s Nokia were unable to provide the necessary kit to the same timescale and cost as Huawei.

The government is concerned that any delay to the roll-out of hi-tech new communications systems would hit its efforts to solve the UK’s persistent problem with stagnant productivity.

Today’s NSC meeting officially designated Huawei for the first time as a “high-risk vendor”, based on criteria including the legal regime in China, its home country’s record of cyberattacks and its own past behaviour.

The Chinese company will be allowed no involvement in the “core” of the network, made up of tightly-guarded server banks storing and operating databases of individuals’ personal information, authentication systems and encryption facilities.

But it will be allowed to supply equipment such as broadband fibre cables, antennae and base stations.

Foreign secretary Dominic Raab confirmed the plans in a statement to MPs this afternoon – a day after several senior Conservatives pleaded with him to step back from the go-ahead.

He told the Commons that the government’s approach “will substantially improve the security and the resilience of the UK’s telecoms networks”. And former PM Theresa May, who first gave the green light for Huawei’s involvement in a leaked NSC meeting last year, said the decision was “right for the UK”.

Huawei welcomed the announcement, saying it was “reassured that we can continue working with our customers to keep the 5G roll-out on track”.

“This evidence-based decision will result in a more advanced, more secure and more cost-effective telecoms infrastructure that is fit for the future,” said the company’s vice-president Victor Zhang.

“It gives the UK access to world-leading technology and ensures a competitive market. We have supplied cutting-edge technology to telecoms operators in the UK for more than 15 years.”

The UK will now push western allies to develop non-Chinese alternatives which could reduce reliance on Huawei equipment in the years ahead. Over time, it is intended that Huawei’s 35 per cent share of the network will reduce as other suppliers develop competitive equipment.

Huawei currently has a 34 per cent share in its UK markets, and has been adopted by three British telecoms providers as their key kit supplier for 4G networks, with about 65 per cent of BT and Vodafone.

Without the new cap, the Chinese company would have been expected to achieve a dominant two-thirds share of the non-core 5G and full-fibre market.

A Whitehall source said: “We are clear-eyed about the challenge posed by Huawei, which we today confirm is a high-risk vendor. Huawei will be banned from those parts of the 5G and full-fibre broadband network that are critical to security. They will also be banned from sensitive locations such as nuclear sites and military bases.”

In a swipe at US claims that the Chinese tech giant cannot be safely incorporated into a sensitive western communications system, the source said: “Our world-leading cybersecurity experts know more about Huawei than any country on Earth and are satisfied that, with our approach and tough regulatory regime, any risk can be safely managed.

“We agree with the US and other Five Eyes allies that we must urgently diversify the market and develop alternative suppliers and we are working on an ambitious strategy to achieve this.”

Ciaran Martin, chief executive of the National Cyber Security Centre said the package agreed today will ensure that the UK has "a very strong, practical and technically sound framework for digital security in the years ahead".

“High-risk vendors have never been – and never will be – in our most sensitive networks," he said. “Taken together these measures add up to a very strong framework for digital security.”

Labour’s digital spokesperson Tracy Brabin said: “Despite years of dithering, the government still can’t tell us how it will restrict Huawei’s access to sensitive parts of the network. It must now give specific reassurances to workers and businesses that a 35 per cent 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.”

Join our commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies


Thank you for registering

Please refresh the page or navigate to another page on the site to be automatically logged inPlease refresh your browser to be logged in