5G and Huawei: Mobile networks race ahead as government delays

While the race for Number 10 continues, the UK's mobile networks are gambling that the new Prime Minister will let them use Huawei equipment in their 5G networks.
Written by Steve Ranger, Global News Director

The government continues to delay its decision on whether Huawei equipment can be used in the UK's 5G networks, but the country's mobile operators are racing ahead with their rollouts anyway.

As they wait for the much-delayed publication of a government report, UK operators are rolling out Huawei kit as part of the drive to get their 5G networks live. All the main operators have promised to offer 5G this year, which means using Huawei equipment in their radio access networks.

SEE: IT pro's guide to the evolution and impact of 5G technology (free PDF)

As Three told ZDNet: "If you want to launch 5G this year, they're the only game in town." Vodafone already has somewhere between 150 to 200 base stations deployed, and rising fast; ripping those out again would cost tens of millions of pounds. EE has said the first phase of its 5G network will run on top of the existing 4G network -- using Huawei equipment as part of the radio access network.

When the UK's mobile operators were designing their 5G networks, the use of Huawei equipment was relatively uncontroversial, as the Chinese company's hardware has been used in UK mobile networks for many years.

But in the last 18 months, the US has become increasingly vocal about its concerns over the potential security risks involved. It has argued that using Huawei equipment risks giving the Chinese state a backdoor into networks, which could allow it to spy with ease. Huawei has denied that this would be possible, and the US has so far provided no evidence to back up its claims. Nonetheless, the US has been putting pressure on its allies, including the UK, to stop using Huawei kit.

The bigger problem for UK networks is not where they will spend their money but where they've spent it already. Initially, 5G networks have to ride on the back of 4G networks -- and Huawei is already a key part of their 4G infrastructure. No Huawei equipment for 5G means disrupting 4G networks too, so it's no surprise that the operators are gambling on the UK government green-lighting its use in less critical parts of their networks.

DCMS delay

The Department for Culture Media and Sport (DCMS) is currently working on a supply chain review that will decide whether Huawei equipment should be used in UK 5G networks. But the UK's mobile operators aren't waiting (although they have held back from offering Huawei 5G handsets because of President Trump's ban on the company accessing sensitive US technology).

The DCMS review was due out first in the spring of this year; it then slid into the summer, and now is expected to be published some time later this year -- presumably after the new Prime Minister is confirmed in office.

It's not clear how the two candidates for Prime Minister will respond to the review. When the news first leaked that, following the review, the government was likely to allow Huawei's equipment to be used in non-critical parts of UK 5G networks, Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt was reportedly among those who voiced their disapproval. The other candidate, Boris Johnson, was not in the Cabinet at the time.

SEE: 10 tips for new cybersecurity pros (free PDF)    

The UK's cybersecurity agency has said it has seen no evidence of malevolent activities by Huawei. While it has criticised poor engineering practices and said that 'serious vulnerabilities' have been discovered in Huawei kit, it also said that the risk of doing business with the Chinese networking giant was manageable. And President Trump has hinted that the current row over Huawei may be resolved if the ongoing trade talks with China can be resolved to his satisfaction.

However, as both prime ministerial candidates have promised that they will conclude the UK's departure from the European Union -- Brexit -- by the end of October, it's not clear how much time the new PM will have to spend on decisions about telecoms infrastructure.

In the end, the new PM's decision will involve a big chunk of politics. Just as the UK is completing its highly controversial exit from the EU, it will have to decide whether to upset the US by allowing the use of Huawei equipment or to annoy China by banning it.

For a country looking to navigate the world on its own after nearly 50 years in the EU, the decision about Huawei could say a lot about how the UK sees its future place in the world.

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