Boris Johnson bans Huawei from UK’s 5G network in major U-turn

Requirement to remove all Huawei 5G equipment by 2027 will cost £2bn and delay introduction of hi-tech new network by two or three years

Andrew Woodcock
Political Editor
Tuesday 14 July 2020 13:42 BST
UK government bans Huawei from UK's 5G network in major U-turn

China tonight cast doubt over the future of its investments in the UK after Boris Johnson brought down the curtain on the so-called “golden era” of commercial relations between the countries by excluding tech giant Huawei from the development of Britain’s hi-tech 5G mobile communications network.

In a major U-turn just six months after approving Huawei involvement in the development of the futuristic network, the prime minister slapped a ban on UK operators purchasing any of the company’s equipment after the end of this year and said any 5G kit already installed must be ripped out by 2027. Meanwhile, UK broadband operators have been told to transition away from the company’s products within around two years.

Downing Street insisted it was a purely technical decision forced by US sanctions imposed by Donald Trump on security grounds in May, which meant the security and resilience of a network reliant on Huawei products could no longer be guaranteed. Britain continued to seek “a positive and constructive relationship” with China, said one insider.

But the response of China’s ambassador to London, Liu Xiaoming, left no doubt that Beijing believes the decision will have wider repercussions on investment plans.

Denouncing the decision as “disappointing and wrong”, Mr Liu said: “It has become questionable whether the UK can provide an open, fair and non-discriminatory business environment for companies from other countries.”

The dramatic shift was agreed at the National Security Council chaired by Mr Johnson this morning on the basis of a National Cyber Security Centre assessment of the impact of the US sanctions on Britain’s 5G plans.

The block on Huawei’s use of US-produced components and software was judged by the NCSC to be a “game-changer” making it unsafe to rely on the Chinese company for key elements of the hi-tech new mobile communications network which is expected to power UK GDP growth in future years.

Beijing had previously threatened “consequences” against the UK for overturning its decision in January to allow Huawei to supply up to 35 per cent of the kit for non-core parts of the new 5G network, sparking fears that Britain may be subject to trade sanctions or cyberattacks of the kind unleashed against Australia when it demanded an inquiry into the source of the coronavirus pandemic.

Speaking ahead of the decision, Mr Liu warned: “Rejecting Huawei is rejecting a better future and will damage UK’s image as an open, business-friendly, free and transparent environment as it claims.”

A Huawei UK spokesman said the ban on the firm will “move Britain into the digital slow lane, push up bills and deepen the digital divide”. It is understood there will be no compensation paid to the Chinese company.

Announcing the decision to the House of Commons, digital secretary Oliver Dowden acknowledged that the change in strategy will delay the introduction of 5G in the UK by around two to three years to 2027-28 at an additional cost of around £2bn. But the government is sticking by Mr Johnson’s 2025 target for national rollout of full-fibre broadband.

The ban does not apply to private individuals buying Huawei mobile phones, laptops or other personal devices. And Huawei components will not be removed from existing 2G, 3G or 4G networks, where they are not considered to pose a risk to security or resilience.

Mr Dowden told MPs: “By the time of the next election, we will have implemented in law an irreversible path for the complete removal of Huawei equipment from our 5G networks.

“We have not taken this decision lightly and I must be frank about the consequences for every constituency in this country. This will delay our rollout of 5G.

“Our decisions in January had already set back that rollout by a year and cost up to a billion pounds. Today’s decision to ban the procurement of new Huawei 5G equipment from the end of this year will delay rollout by a year and will add up to half a billion pounds to costs. Requiring operators in addition to remove Huawei equipment from their 5G networks by 2027 will add hundreds of millions of pounds further to the cost and further delay rollout.

“This means a cumulative delayed 5G rollout of two to three years and costs of up to £2bn. This will have real consequences for the connections on which all our constituents rely.”

Shadow digital minister Chi Onwurah said the government’s approach to Huawei had been “incomprehensibly negligent” and denounced its handling of the decision as “a car crash for our digital economy which could be visible from outer space”.

Mr Johnson has come under increasing pressure from Conservative backbenchers – including former party leader Iain Duncan Smith – to remove Huawei from the UK’s sensitive national infrastructure, with as many as 60 indicating they were ready to rebel to block upcoming telecommunications legislation.

Tory MP Bob Seely, coordinator of the Huawei Interest Group of concerned backbenchers, welcomed today’s decision.

But he added: “I believe that MPs will have concerns about elements of the statement, including no ban on 3G and 4G and a rip-out date for 5G far into the distance.

“It does mean Huawei’s glide path out of our critical national infrastructure will be slow. It also means that BT and others could be installing already-bought Huawei kit for well after 2020.”

Raising concerns about allegations of Huawei using forced labour and providing kit to perpetuate human rights abuses against the Muslim Uighur minority in Xinjiang, Mr Seely said: “This is not fundamentally an issue about Huawei but an issue about China.

“We badly need a new assessment of our relationship with China.”

Huawei UK spokesman Ed Brewster said: “This disappointing decision is bad news for anyone in the UK with a mobile phone. It threatens to move Britain into the digital slow lane, push up bills and deepen the digital divide.

“Instead of ‘levelling up’, the government is levelling down and we urge them to reconsider.

“We remain confident that the new US restrictions would not have affected the resilience or security of the products we supply to the UK. Regrettably our future in the UK has become politicised, this is about US trade policy and not security.

“Over the past 20 years, Huawei has focused on building a better connected UK. As a responsible business, we will continue to support our customers as we have always done.

“We will conduct a detailed review of what today’s announcement means for our business here and will work with the UK government to explain how we can continue to contribute to a better connected Britain.”

But the move was welcomed by US ambassador in London Woody Johnson, who said: “Britain’s decision to protect its national security by banning Huawei from its 5G network is also a win for fair trade and human rights.”

Mr Dowden said countries around the world have become “dangerously reliant on too few vendors” in the telecoms industry.

On China, he said the government is “clear-eyed” before telling the Commons: “What we want is a modern and mature relationship with China based on mutual respect where we’re able to speak frankly when we disagree but also to work side by side with China on the issues where our interests converge.

“Today’s decision, however, is about ensuring the long-term security of our telecoms network – specifically in light of those new US sanctions.

“The security and resilience of our telecoms networks is of paramount importance. We have never and will never compromise that security in pursuit of economic prosperity.”

BT’s chief executive Philip Jansen said the company believes it can absorb the cost of the new changes within the £500m bill for complying with the restrictions announced in January, without affecting coverage for customers.

“Clearly this decision has logistical and cost implications for communications providers in the UK market – however, we believe the timescales outlined will allow us to make these changes without impacting on the coverage or resilience of our existing networks,” said Mr Jansen.

“It will also allow us to continue to roll out our 5G and full fibre networks without a significant impact on the timescales we’ve previously announced. While we have provided our initial view on the estimated impact today, we will continue to evaluate the details of this decision thoroughly.”

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