Huawei and 5G: Why the UK's decision is getting tougher every day

The prime minister's decision about Huawei will say much about the UK's place in the world after Brexit.

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The UK is expected to make a final decision soon on whether to allow equipment from Chinese tech company Huawei to be part of the 5G mobile networks currently being built across the country.

The current US government has loudly criticised the idea of the Chinese company being so intimately involved with such projects and has waged a long and public campaign to persuade other nations to shun Huawei, with some success. The US has said it is concerned that Huawei's equipment could be used at some point by the Chinese state to spy on other nations. 

The company has consistently denied this accusation, and the US has so far provided no hard evidence to back up its claims.

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

There are serious issues for the UK to consider here. These 5G networks will at some point underpin everything from smart cities to augmented-reality surgery. They have to be secure and unbreakable.

An outage of a 5G network controlling an automated factory or motorway full of self-driving cars could be disastrous, especially if it could be triggered at-will by a foreign state. 

Espionage is another, more obvious and realistic fear. No nation would want its most sensitive data to be read by another. And few would dispute that the Chinese state has regularly used cyber espionage against other governments and businesses.

So, first, there is the fundamental issue: can Huawei's equipment be trusted as part of the UK's critical infrastructure?

It's a question that the UK's intelligence agencies and technical experts have been pondering long and hard. Up to now their answer has been that, so long as Huawei's kit is limited to the outer reaches of these new 5G networks, the risk is manageable.

Huawei's equipment has long been used in UK networks without incident, and the country of origin is not the only, and not even a primary, factor when it comes to assessing security.

Indeed, the National Cyber Security Centre has said the best way of keeping the UK's networks secure is to have a broad range of suppliers, a stance that at least implies that banning one of the suppliers in a market dominated by just three players is somewhat short-sighted. That's an assessment that the US disagrees with, of course.

But there are other factors at play here.

The government has long dragged its heels over making this decision – it was first expected in the spring of last year, then delayed over and over again. Last July, the government was being told to make a decision as a matter of urgency. Then Brexit wrangling and a change of prime minister handily pushed the issue away again.

The final decision is expected soon, perhaps in the next few days.

There's a good reason why the government has taken so long deliberating on what is a relatively obscure technical issue: there's no easy way out of this that doesn't upset at least one global superpower liable to bear grudges.

If the UK doesn't ban Huawei equipment from its 5G networks, it risks upsetting a mercurial US President. The US has already threatened to reduce intelligence sharing with the UK if it allows equipment from the Chinese vendor to be used. If the UK decides to infuriate Beijing by banning Huawei, then future trade relations with China could be imperilled.

Neither option is exactly attractive with Brexit looming in a matter of days now, and the UK eager to find as many international supporters (and trade deals) as it can.

So the UK government has to calculate whether the anti-Huawei sentiment emanating from the US will continue for the long term, or whether it will evaporate once the ongoing US-China trade war is resolved. 

How long the anti-Huawei sentiment lasts may depend on whether President Donald Trump wins a second term in office later this year. The UK may also conclude that the US is unlikely to limit intel sharing with one of its closest allies, but if President Trump perceives a snub, it may delay or complicate future trade talks.

However, the UK will also have to consider how upset China will be if Huawei was banned from the UK's 5G network. 

The decision isn't going to take place in a vacuum, and this is perhaps the key.

Every day, the UK's mobile operators are racing to roll out 5G networks across the country as fast as they can. In most cases, at the edge of the network at least, that means rolling out lots of Huawei equipment in the form of those big antennas and other bits of hardware you see decorating the tops of tall buildings.

Every day of indecision is another day where the mobile operators roll out another load of expensive equipment. If Huawei were now to be banned from any involvement in those networks, someone will have to pick up the bill for ripping out and replacing that equipment, and also take the blame for setting back the rollout of 5G significantly. That raises the stakes and makes the UK's decision a little harder as time passes.

SEE: Huawei warns of 'difficult' year ahead amidst ongoing trade ban

The government is unlikely to want to shoulder either the cost or the blame. That makes it very likely that the UK will explain that it will allow Huawei kit to stay where it is, in the outer reaches of the 5G networks, but not in the core where billing and customer data is stored. 

It's a fudge – it's hard to draw a clear line between the edge and core of the 5G network, for example – but it might get the government off the hook without upsetting the superpowers too much.

This is likely to be the first of many such decisions. While until now most of the technology infrastructure we depend on has been designed in the West, even if it has been increasingly built in China, that may not be the case in the future. 

The UK's decision about Huawei will tell us much about how the country is positioning itself for the future. The next big question is how China and the US will respond.