Government Warns UK Telcos Over Huawei Involvement In 5G Networks

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An ongoing security review launched in July could mean disruption to the UK’s 5G supply chain, government tells telcos

The government has written to telecommunications companies warning them of caution in selecting which equipment makers to use when rolling out 5G networks, in a move apparently intended to put pressure on Chinese manufacturing giant Huawei.

In a letter sent to several telecoms firms, Matthew Gould, head of digital policy at the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, and Ciaran Martin, head of the National Cyber Security Centre, said a telecoms infrastructure review that launched in July could affect the 5G supply chain.

The “outcome of the review may lead to changes in the current rules”, the letter said, adding that telecoms firms “will need to take the review into consideration in any procurement decisions”.

The aim of the review is to ensure that the UK’s “critical national infrastructure remains resilient and secure”, the letter said, according to a report by the Financial Times.

5G supply chain

Huawei’s equipment has been a key part of the UK’s telecoms infrastructure since the Chinese firm won a contract with BT in 2005.

But political tensions have seen the company become a target in recent years, with the US and Australia both banning Chinese suppliers, including Huawei, from participating in the build-out of their next-generation telecoms networks.

The US has also placed restrictions on the sale of smartphones made by Huawei and other Chinese manufacturers in the country.

In March, the US blocked Broadcom’s planned hostile acquisition of Qualcomm after saying that the deal could benefit 5G research plans by Chinese companies such as Huawei.

The US is involved in a trade dispute with China that last week extended to an indictment against Fujian Jinhua, a manufacturer of memory chips, on charges of conspiring to steal trade secrets, an action which also included an export ban against the company.

Network trials

The FT cited unnamed telecoms executives as saying that if the UK were planning to follow Australia and the US in banning Chinese infrastructure providers from Britain’s 5G networks, it would delay projects planned for completion next year and in 2020.

BT’s EE mobile business is testing a 5G network in Canary Wharf with Huawei, while Three has contracted the Shenzhen-based company to supply 5G radio access equpment.

It is also possible the government is seeking to ensure that companies don’t place too much reliance on Huawei, and also use other 5G equipment firms, the executives said.

A government spokesperson told the FT its telecoms review was aimed at “ensuring we have the right overall framework in place” for security and resiliency, and was not a “binary review of the country of origin of telecoms suppliers”.

Nevertheless, the government has been increasing pressure on Chinese suppliers in the face of US hostility.

In April, the NCSC warned that if telecoms companies made broader use of equipment from China’s ZTE, it could have “long-term negative effect on the security of the UK”, due to the already significant difficulties of monitoring equipment from Huawei for any possible security issues.

In July, UK security officials said they could no longer be fully confident about the security of Huawei’s networking products, due to “shortcomings” in Huawei’s engineering processes that made it increasingly difficult to monitor the equipment.

National security risk

“Shortcomings in Huawei’s engineering processes have exposed new risks in the UK telecommunication networks and long-term challenges in mitigation and management,” said the report by the Huawei Cyber Security Evaluation Centre (HCSEC) oversight board, set up in 2010 to provide security assurances around the use of Huawei equipment in Britain.

The centre is staffed by British security officials, including some from GCHQ, which signs off its annual reports.

As a result, the board said that for the first time it could “provide only limited assurance that any risks to UK national security from Huawei’s involvement in the UK’s critical networks have been sufficiently mitigated”.

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