U.K. allows limited Huawei role in 5G networks

The U.K. government has decided China’s Huawei can supply gear for the country’s 5G networks, but it will be restricted to non-core portions, considered less security-sensitive.

The decision, announced Tuesday, comes despite increased U.S. pressure on allies for a complete ban of Huawei equipment from next-generation communications networks, over security concerns related to Huawei’s ties to the Chinese government. The U.S. has warned that Huawei could be used by China for state-sponsored activities like espionage or disruption – allegations the vendor has continuously denied.

The U.K.’s National Cyber Security Centre (NCSC) issued guidance for the country’s telecom operators on the new restrictions, and the government said it plans to bring forward legislation as soon as possible to implement the new security framework.

“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,” said U.K. Digital Secretary Baroness Morgan in a statement. “This is a UK-specific solution for UK-specific reasons and the decision deals with the challenges we face right now.”

Specifically, the restrictions exclude “high risk vendors” from sensitive ‘core’ network functions and limit their presence in the radio access network (RAN) to a hard cap of 35%. The 35% limit on 5G networks applies to each the volume of expected traffic on any particular network that passes through Huawei (or any single high risk vendor) equipment and the percentage of base station sites nationally supplied by a vendor. For fiber to the premise (FTTP) and other gigabit-capable access networks, a 35% limit applies to the percentage of premises passed by a network that are served by high risk vendor equipment.

The recommended cap will be kept under review and may be reduced further as more vendors enter the market, the U.K. said in its announcement, which also stressed the need for the country to diversify its equipment vendor pool and adopt open interoperable standards to encourage new entrants.

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The restrictions also exclude Huawei from all safety-related and safety critical networks, and from sensitive geographic locations like nuclear sites and military bases.

Huawei in a statement called the U.K. decision reassuring and noted the company has supplied telecom operators in the U.K. for more than 15 years.

“Huawei is reassured by the UK government’s confirmation 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,” the statement said. “We agree a diverse vendor market and fair competition are essential for network reliability and innovation, as well as ensuring consumers have access to the best possible technology.”

 Once new legislation is in place based on today’s conclusions and the Telecoms Security Requirements (TSR) announced in July, it will give U.K. telecom regulator Ofcom “something tangible to check the operators against,” wrote NCSC Technical Director Ian Levy in a blog post.  

“Huawei has always been considered higher risk by the UK government and a risk mitigation strategy has been in place since they first began to supply into the UK,” noted the NCSC.

The fact that Huawei is already present in U.K. networks (alongside Nokia and Ericsson) is one factor that weighed on the country’s consideration of excluding the vendor.  Major operators like BT and Vodafone had pushed back against an outright ban, citing high costs of replacing equipment and potentially significant delays in 5G rollouts.

The NCSC said operators who currently have Huawei equipment that exceeds the recommended 35% limit should reduce it “as soon as practical,” but indicated it should be possible to reach that level within three years.

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A Vodafone spokesperson said the company noted the U.K. decision to restrict Huawei and shared the following statement:

“While Vodafone UK does not use Huawei in its core – the intelligent part of the network – it will now analyse the potential impact of today’s decision on the non-core elements of its network (masts and transmission links). Vodafone UK uses a mix of Huawei, Ericsson and Nokia equipment for its 4G and 5G masts, and we continue to believe that the use of a wide range of equipment vendors is the best way to safeguard the delivery of services to all mobile customers.  By working closely with the relevant authorities on any required substitution of equipment and it’s timing, we aim to keep any potential disruption to customers to a minimum.”

In March, Vodafone ‘s UK technology chief told Reuters that Huawei radio equipment was used in nearly a third of its 18,000 U.K. base stations.

As for U.S. response, a senior U.S White House official told CNBC the U.S. is “disappointed with the U.K.s decision, and urged countries to continue evaluating impacts of using untrusted vendors in important 5G networks. Earlier this month, U.S. lawmaker introduced a bill that would limit sharing intelligence with any countries who don’t exclude Huawei from 5G their networks.  

5G Action Now, a new political advocacy group formed with the aim of advancing U.S. efforts to lead in 5G particularly against China, had harsh words, calling the decision “terrible.”   

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“Great Britain’s decision to allow Huawei to build 'non-core' parts of the 5G network is a terrible decision, period. Allowing Huawei access to any part of your network—core or otherwise—is a recipe for disaster as even a non-core door is still a door to a critical communications network. I worry that by the time London realizes this, it will be too late to close the barn door and the digital horses will be in Beijing’s stables,” said Mike Rogers, Chairman of 5G Action Now and former Chairman of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, in a statement.