UK prime minister Boris Johnson risked a rift with president Donald Trump as he gave Huawei Technologies Co the green light to help develop Britain’s next-generation broadband networks.
While the UK government announced it will keep what it calls high-risk vendors such as Huawei out of the most sensitive core parts of its 5G mobile networks, the company will be able to supply other equipment that is critical to the roll-out of broadband such as antennas and base stations.
That is a blow to the Trump administration, which wanted Johnson to impose an outright ban on the Shenzhen-based tech giant, citing concerns that its gear could be vulnerable to infiltration by Chinese spies. The two men spoke about the UK decision on January 28, according to Johnson’s office. American officials had warned the US may be forced to hold back secret intelligence from the UK in future, if Johnson pressed ahead with giving Huawei a role. The company has always denied it poses any security risk.
A key pillar of Johnson’s vision for a future outside the world’s richest single market is a trade deal with the US and the Huawei license risks setting up a clash with Trump. On their call Johnson “underlined the importance of like-minded countries working together to diversify the market and break the dominance of a small number of companies,” his office said.
The initial reaction from Washington was muted.
A senior US administration official expressed disappointment at Johnson’s decision, but also hope that the US and the UK could still find some way to exclude components from untrusted vendors in 5G systems in future. Trump himself is yet to comment on the issue.
Reactions from Congress were more critical. “Here’s the sad truth: our special relationship is less special now that the UK has embraced the surveillance state commies at Huawei,” said Republican Senator Ben Sasse of Nebraska.
Republican Senator Marsha Blackburn of Tennessee suggested curtailing intelligence-sharing with any allies whose networks run on the equipment of “untrusted” vendors.
“If we have exhausted our carrots with the Brits, it may be time to use a stick,” Blackburn said in a
Republican Senator Tom Cotton of Arkansas, in a reference to Brexit, said: “I fear London has freed itself from Brussels only to cede sovereignty to Beijing. Allowing Huawei to build the U.K.’s 5G networks today is like allowing the KGB to build its telephone network during the Cold War.”
In London, too, senior members of Johnson’s ruling Conservative Party expressed dismay at his decision. Former party leader Iain Duncan Smith, and ex-cabinet minister David Davis warned of the security risks the Chinese company posed. “The size and complexity, the problem we are trying to protect against, is enormous,” Davis told the House of Commons. “Huawei should be banned from our networks.”
The widely-expected announcement by Johnson’s government is a compromise between the outright ban on Huawei sought by the U.S. and the access sought by telecommunication companies. While it ends months of political wrangling in the U.K., the process remains fraught with peril for Johnson as he prepares to end Britain’s 47 years of European Union membership and plans to negotiate a new trade deal with the U.S.
Under the U.K.’s policy, a cap of up to 35% will be imposed on Huawei’s share of the non-sensitive parts of the next-generation networks, such as antennas, masts and even fixed-line fibre-to-the-home components.
High risk vendors, a category which would also include China’s ZTE, which is already banned from the U.K., are also to be “excluded from sensitive geographic locations, such as nuclear sites and military bases.”
The 35% cap will be kept under review and could reduce over time, the government said. The cap is roughly in line with Huawei’s current overall market share in 4G, and Huawei said it was expected and reasonable. U.K. officials said the cap could be reduced over time, and the aim is to work with allies to help develop alternatives and get to a stage where the country doesn’t need to rely on high-risk vendors at all.
However, the cap may mean that phone carriers like BT Group Plc’s EE, Vodafone Group Plc and Three have to rejig their 5G plans to comply. Three, a unit of Hong Kong-based CK Hutchison Holdings Ltd., had been depending on Huawei to deliver the entirety of its 5G radio-access network, with Nokia chosen to provide the core.
Dave Dyson, chief executive officer of Three U.K., said in a statement: “We note the government’s announcement and are reviewing the detail.”
Ericsson AB and Nokia Oyj are the primary Huawei rivals in networking equipment now, but the U.K. decision may help create more options for certain segments of wireless networks. Cisco Systems Inc., Juniper Networks Inc., Ciena Corp. and Infinera Corp. may benefit as wireless operators look for alternative suppliers, said Woo Jin Ho, a Bloomberg Intelligence analyst.
In a statement, Huawei Vice-President Victor Zhang said it was “reassured” that the U.K. will let the company keep working with carriers on 5G.
“This evidence-based decision will result in a more advanced, more secure and more cost-effective telecoms infrastructure that is fit for the future,” he said, committing to build on Huawei’s more than 15 years supplying U.K. telecom operators.
The Confederation of British Industry, the leading business lobby in the country, said “this solution appears a sensible compromise that gives the U.K. access to cutting-edge technology, whilst building in appropriate checks and balances around security.” Vodafone, which uses Huawei in its U.K. radio network, said “we aim to keep any potential disruption to customers to a minimum.”
By curbing Huawei’s access but still allowing the supplier to play a role in 5G, British officials are betting they can manage any security risks at home and still maintain intelligence-sharing ties with the U.S. and other allies.
Johnson discussed Huawei in a phone call with Trump on Friday, and clearly wasn’t swayed by the push for a total ban. The prime minister said the U.K. could have the best of both worlds: retaining access to the best technology while protecting the data of consumers. British security services deem the risks manageable.
For the U.K. timing of its announcement is particularly sensitive. U.S. Secretary of State Michael Pompeo, who had warned Johnson’s predecessor not to “wobble” on the issue, is due to visit on Wednesday.
Huawei has been a key supplier to the U.K. and many other European phone networks for over a decade so this decision will be closely watched by others. In fact, many European nations are leaning in the same direction as the U.K.
The EU will publish its own guidelines on Wednesday which give leeway to member states to restrict or ban Huawei without forcing them to do so. According to a draft of the document seen by Bloomberg, countries should consider banning suppliers based in countries with insufficient “democratic checks and balances” from core 5G components.
Canada has also indicated interest in a similarly split decision — allowing Huawei while also pledging to contain any security risk.
A key concern of the U.S. is that other countries will copy-and-paste the U.K.’s solution, relying on its regulatory system and high level of access to Huawei technology.
“The U.K. model isn’t easily replicated,” warned Ian Levy, technical director of the National Cyber Security Centre, in a blog published alongside the decision. “The approach we’ve come up with for the U.K. is specific to the U.K. context. Others shouldn’t assume they’re getting the same level of protection for modern networks if they do similar things without performing their own analysis.”
The market is broken, he added, because it’s not commercially attractive to build good security into networks.