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UK to allow Huawei a limited role in 5G networks

The British government gave a strong hint today (23 January 2020) that it will allow Huawei a limited role in the roll-out of future UK 5G mobile networks, a Reuters report said. Huawei will be banned from supplying core network equipment, but it may be allowed to contribute to other non-core parts of the network.

No official decision had been announced, but the recommendation to allow Huawei a role in 5G networks was apparently made at a meeting of officials from senior government departments on Wednesday, Reuters said. Sources said Britain’s National Security Council is due to meet next week to decide how to deploy Huawei equipment.

The recommendation by Boris Johnson’s government is very similar to the provisional position set out by former Prime Minister Theresa May last year. The move is in stark contrast to the wishes of Britain’s key ally the USA, which has strongly lobbied the UK not to use Huawei equipment.

The US argues the deployment of Huawei 5G equipment could allow China to spy on Western governments thereby compromising security. UK intelligence agencies have previously pointed to security flaws in Huawei equipment that need addressing, but said they have found no evidence of espionage and that they believe any risks can be successfully managed.

However, experts have pointed out that the difference between the core and non-core elements is much less defined in 5G networks, as more intelligence will be moved to the base stations at the edge of the network. This would make it easier to access the network from outside the core.

BT, which owns EE, and Vodafone have argued against a total ban on the use of Huawei equipment claiming it could set back the rollout of fast broadband by two years. Both mobile operators already use Huawei 4G equipment, although Vodafone last year paused deployment of Huawei kit in its network core. BT/EE uses Huawei outside of the core and has said it will not invite Huawei to bid for future 5G work.

Britain has argued that Huawei 5G equipment is more technologically advanced and cheaper than that supplied by its key infrastructure rivals Ericsson and Nokia. The UK argues that lack of market competition for mobile network infrastructure makes it unrealistic to exclude Huawei. The fourth key supplier, ZTE, is also Chinese.

Steve Papa, CEO of Parallel Wireless, a US firm, which supplies 5G, 4G, 3G, 2G OpenRAN wireless solutions, commented: “Even though Huawei technology will play a role in the development of the UK’s 5G networks, mobile operators should look at how they can use more secure and flexible technology suppliers. Operators need more competition in their supply chains, promoting more innovation, and reducing the cost of improving rural 4G and rolling-out 5G.

“Operators in Europe have already seen the value in this approach. Vodafone is planning to put its entire European network up for tender to technology suppliers that can enable more open networks. This is a good opportunity for the UK’s telecoms industry to re-evaluate the technology it is using and change the economics of delivering connectivity to their customers.”