The government should consider whether it is possible to bring forward the deadline for removing Huawei's equipment from the UK's 5G networks if pressure from allies continues and if relations with China falter, according to an influential parliamentary committee.
UK telecoms networks currently have until 2027 to remove Huawei technology from their 5G networks. While a report into 5G security by the House of Commons Defence Committee backed this deadline, it also said that "developments" could potentially necessitate this date being moved forward to 2025, which it said "could be considered economically feasible".
The US government has long argued that the use of Huawei equipment in sensitive networks could leave countries at risk of being spied on by the Chinese state. Huawei has consistently denied this, and the US has not provided any evidence to back up its claims.
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The UK's position on Huawei – which has been providing technology for UK mobile networks for nearly two decades – has shifted and hardened in recent months. In January, the UK government said it would allow Huawei to provide some equipment for the country's 5G networks.
But as US sanctions against Huawei began to bite, the UK changed its position. In July, the government told telecoms operators to halt the purchase of 5G equipment from the Chinese company from 2021, and remove all of Huawei's technology from their 5G networks by 2027.
The committee's report noted that the government has faced pressure to remove Huawei sooner than 2027, but warned that such a move could result in signal blackouts, delay the 5G rollout significantly, and cost both operators and the economy greatly. The report said that, for the time being, the plan for removal by 2027 was a sensible decision.
But it added: "Should pressure from allies for a speedier removal continue or should China's threats and global position change so significantly to warrant it, the government should, however, consider whether a removal by 2025 is feasible and economically viable. The government should also be alert to the fact that other factors may warrant an earlier removal despite the risk of costs or delays."
The government should take steps to minimise the delay and economic damage and consider providing compensation to operators if the 2027 deadline is moved forward, MPs said.
The report also said that Huawei is strongly linked to the Chinese state and the Chinese Communist Party, and that "having a company so closely tied to a state and political organisation sometimes at odds with UK interests should be a point of concern and the decision to remove Huawei from our networks is further supported by these links."
A Huawei spokesperson said: "This report lacks credibility, as it is built on opinion rather than fact. We're sure people will see through these accusations of collusion and remember instead what Huawei has delivered for Britain over the past 20 years."
But while the report said removing Huawei's equipment from 5G networks is the right thing to do, it creates further problems due to the limited number of 5G suppliers. The government should work with mobile network operators to bring in new vendors to the UK, for example Samsung or NEC, as well as encouraging the development of industrial capability in the country, the report said.
Chair of the Defence Committee, Tobias Ellwood, said that Western states must urgently unite to advance a counterweight to China's tech dominance. "As every aspect of our lives becomes increasingly reliant on access to data movement we must develop a feasible, practical and cost-effective alternative to the cheap, high-tech solutions which can be preyed upon and which come stooped with conditions which ensnare a state into long-term allegiance to China," said Ellwood.
"We must not surrender our national security for the sake of short-term technological development."