The government's failure to decide on whether Huawei should be allowed to provide equipment for the UK's 5G networks is causing "serious damage" to the UK's international relationships, according to a committee of MPs, who have said the next Prime Minister must make a decision quickly.
Parliament's Intelligence and Security Committee warned that although the government's announced back in 2017 that the UK would be a global leader in 5G, "the government has yet to make a decision as to which companies will be involved".
It added: "The extent of the delay is now causing serious damage to our international relationships: a decision must be made as a matter of urgency."
SEE: IT pro's guide to the evolution and impact of 5G technology (free PDF)
While UK networks have been using equipment from Huawei for many years, in the last 18 months the US, in particular, has become very vocal about its security concerns. It has claimed that using Huawei equipment risks giving the Chinese state a backdoor into these critical networks. Huawei has denied that this would be possible, and the US has so far provided no evidence to back up its assertions.
The US administration has been putting pressure on its allies, including the UK, to stop using Huawei, and the UK is working on a supply chain review that will decide, among other things, whether Huawei equipment should be used in UK 5G networks.
Meanwhile, the UK's mobile operators are racing ahead and installing 5G networks – including Huawei equipment. Ripping out that recently installed equipment would cost tens of millions of pounds and put back the rollout of 5G by as much as two years.
The Intelligence and Security Committee referenced the work of the UK's National Cyber Security Centre (NCSC) which has been clear that the country of origin for telecommunications equipment is not the most important element for determining cybersecurity.
"This is logical: we know, for example, that Russia has carried out significant hostile cyber activity against UK telecommunications networks, and yet there is no Russian equipment in the UK's networks," the committee said.
NCSC has said the best way of making sure that UK networks can withstand an attack from any quarter is to have a broad set of suppliers. This makes systems resilient as they are not dependent on one vendor, and competition between vendors should force them to improve their security standards.
The committee said that in the case of 5G there are only three potential suppliers to the UK – Nokia, Ericsson and Huawei.
"Limiting the field to just two, on the basis of the above arguments, would increase over-dependence and reduce competition, resulting in less resilience and lower security standards. Therefore including a third company – even if you may have some security concerns about them and will have to set a higher bar for security measures within the system – will, counter-intuitively, result in higher overall security," it said.
While this seems to bode well for the inclusion of Huawei, the decision about whether to allow Huawei into 5G networks isn't just about technology, the commitee said.
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The US has regularly warned that it may reduce intelligence sharing with the UK if it chooses to allow Huawei kit. "Our Five Eyes partners need to be able to trust the IJK and we must not do anything which puts that at risk – the value of the partnership cannot be overstated." And the committee also warned that one of the lessons to learn from this debate is that the UK is over-reliant on Chinese technology. "We need to consider how we can create greater diversity in the market. This will require us to take a long-term view – but we need to start now."
But it reiterated that the decision must be made quickly: "It is important to take the right decision, and take it we must: this debate has been unnecessarily protracted and this has damaged our international relationships."
Huawei vice president Victor Zhang said: "We agree that diversity improves resilience in networks. We've been a part of UK networks for 18 years. 5G is critical for the UK and is the foundation of tomorrow's digital and mobile economy."
The Intelligence and Security Committee isn't the only one giving advice to the incoming Prime Minister – the House of Commons Science and Technology Select Committee earlier this week said that while Huawei kit should not be used in the core of 5G networks there was no technical reason to not use it elsewhere. However, it also warned that there were geopolitical – and ethical – considerations the government should take into account.