The Huawei controversy – what could it mean for UK networks?

The Huawei controversy - what could it mean for UK networks?

If you've been paying attention to the news, you can't have failed to notice that Huawei has been coming under a lot of scrutiny recently.

While the firm is perhaps most familiar to consumers for its range of Android smartphones, it also has a major business developing critical equipment for use in telecom networks, such as mobile masts. In particular, it's been one of the world's leading players in creating hardware for 5G networks, which are going live around the world over the coming months and years.

However, concerns have been raised about the firm's closeness to the Chinese government, and especially the potential Beijing may have to leverage its assets in cyber espionage, or even to disrupt and shut down networks. Therefore, several countries have raised questions as to whether the firm's tech should be allowed in the communications networks.

US ramps up pressure on Huawei

Things came to a head this week in the US, when President Trump issued an executive order banning organisations in the country from using foreign telecoms providers believed to pose national security risks. While the order did not refer to any specific companies, there are few in the industry who doubt it is aimed anywhere but at Huawei.

In the order, the president stated the move will "protect America from foreign adversaries who are actively and increasingly creating and exploiting vulnerabilities in information and communications technology infrastructure and services".

While the motives behind this may be at least partly related to the US' efforts to put economic pressure on China as part of its ongoing trade war, many experts on both sides of the Atlantic have concurred with the view that Huawei's closeness to Beijing presents a significant security risk for critical infrastructure.

Is the UK out of step?

So far, the UK has taken a more measured approach in allowing Huawei to continue offering equipment for 'non-core' parts of the country's 5G networks. But this has been hugely controversial, with news of this position coming as the result on an unprecedented leak from a National Security Council briefing, which ultimately led to defence secretary Gavin Williamson losing his job.

It has been reported that the National Cyber Security Council argues any risks posed by the use of Huawei in the UK's telecom networks can be managed, and Huawei itself has been keen to emphasise it is an independent firm that is not subject to the whim of the Chinese government, even offering to sign a 'no-spy' agreement to provide the reassurances the government needs.

But with Australia, New Zealand and now the US banning the company from their 5G networks, and the Trump administration seeking to put more pressure on its allies to follow its lead, with suggestions that it could affect issues such as intelligence sharing, it's unclear whether the UK's position is sustainable in the long term.

What could it mean for our comms networks?

Several of the UK's mobile operators that have used Huawei technology have warned any ban will delay the rollout of 5G services. Last month, a report commissioned by trade association Mobile UK – which represents EE, O2, Three and Vodafone – could delay the national 5G mobile network roll-out by between 18 months and two years, costing the UK up to £6.8 billion as a result.

It noted that while other suppliers of 5G equipment are available, there is little interoperability between providers, which would mean network operators have to strip out and replace vast quantities of equipment. What's more, as Huawei offers some of the most advanced solutions, there is also no guarantee that any replacements would offer the same performance.

But with pressure building and widespread uncertainty about whether Huawei will be willing or able to resist any requests from the Chinese government, the government will have to make a final decision sooner rather than later – and it could well decide the benefits are not worth the risks.