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Cautious welcome for UK Huawei decision

After months of dithering, the British government has announced plans to ban controversial Chinese technology company Huawei from its 5G networks - but not for another seven years.

This means halting sales of Huawei 5G equipment from January 2021, and removing 5G equipment already installed in UK networks by 2027.

The move follows the US decision at the end of June to designate Huawei as a threat to US national security, as well as restrictions on the use of its products by Australia, New Zealand, and Canada. 

At issue are the close ties between Huawei and the Chinese government. Under Chinese law, companies are legally bound to co-operate with the intelligence services when required. Huawei is also partially funded by China's Central National Security Commission and is reported to have received tens of billions of dollars in grants and tax breaks from the government.

There is, as a result, a very real possibility that the company could, if so ordered, install backdoors in equipment that would give the Chinese government access to (or even control of) foreign telecoms networks.

Both BT and Vodafone have fought hard against the ban. Indeed, Howard Watson, BT’s chief technology and information officer, told MPs earlier this month that the original deadline of 2023 was unachievable. 

"To get to zero in a three-year period would literally mean blackouts for customers on 4G and 2G, as well as 5G, throughout the country," he said.

However, the company has welcomed the new 2027 deadline.

"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 the coverage or resilience of our existing networks," says chief executive Philip 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." 

Some risk remains

However, some say the decision falls between two stools, by both failing to eliminate the security risk in the immediate future, and delaying the introduction of 5G services.

The British Computer Society (BCS) warns that the UK will have to work hard to develop an alternative to Huawei.

"We need an informed debate about the merits of developing our own capability and how we go about that or ensuring in future there is a diverse supply chain that is resilient to geopolitical tensions," says director of policy Bill Mitchell.

And, says head of cyber at Mishcon de Reya Joe Hancock, the decision could actually increase certain security risks, given that the company will remain involved in the UK's existing 3G and 4G networks. 

With US sanctions now preventing Huawei from using US-built components, the company's supply chain is now under threat, potentially opening the door to less reliable technologies. 

"The sanctions placed on Huawei will impact how products are designed and where their internal components come from, in turn potentially leading to security and reliability issues as these changes are made," he says. 

"Any widespread technology design changes are likely to create security vulnerabilities, even if well tested."

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