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Does having Huawei tech in our 5G networks really matter?

In January, the UK Government decided that Huawei technology can continue to be used in a limited way in 5G networks. 

But there are a few issues at play, not least the perspective from the US – let’s look at the ins and outs here. 

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Huawei tech is already widespread in UK phone networks

Let’s get one thing straight – Huawei tech is all over the place, both in existing fixed-line and mobile phone networks. Vodafone, EE and Three are all using some Huawei gear in their 5G rollout, with the other – O2 – sharing some of Vodafone’s network. 

There’s a difference between having it as a key part of the network (the core network) and having Huawei gear in base stations and masts. If you were to ban Huawei gear from the latter, you’d need to replace a lot of network gear that doesn’t – in the evaluation of the Government and others – pose any kind of security threat. Instead, the Government has put a cap on the use of gear from- see below. 

The UK’s phone networks have increasingly removed Huawei gear from their core networks as security concerns have increased, and fixed-line provider BT Openreach is also reducing its reliance on Huawei gear. 

Where can networks now use Huawei gear? 

For 5G and full-fibre broadband networks, the UK Government review concluded that, based on the current position of the UK market, so-called “high-risk vendors” (of which Huawei is one) should be excluded from all safety and safety-critical networks (including the core of mobile networks) and limited to a minority presence network functions up to a cap of 35%.

There’s little doubt that taking out Huawei gear will cost UK networks financially. One of the key reasons that UK networks (as with many other global telcos) favour Huawei gear is that it has been proven to be reliable over a long period of time, as well as being well priced compared with equipment from rivals.

EE/BT says it estimates the cost as being around £500 million over the next five years. EE was removing Huawei gear from its core network anyway, in favour of Ericsson gear. At one point industry body Mobile UK suggested it would cost the UK economy £6.8 billion to cut Huawei completely out of all networks (which isn’t happening).

What does GCHQ think? 

The Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) is clear that the construction of data networks really doesn’t have much implication for national security. 

According to the official UK Government guidance, “GCHQ have categorically confirmed that how we construct our 5G and full-fibre public telecoms network has nothing to do with how we share classified data.

“And the UK’s technical security experts have agreed that the new controls on high-risk vendors are completely consistent with the UK’s security needs.”

However, in an early 2019 interview with BBC Panorama, the technical director of GCHQ’s National Cyber Security Centre (NCSC) suggested that Huawei needed to up its game in terms of security for its network equipment. Dr Ian Levy called the company’s security “shoddy” and compared it to “engineering back in the year 2000”.

A report by the Huawei Cyber Security Evaluation Centre (HCSEC) board – yes, there is a specialist Government agency looking at this – said there were concerns about “basic engineering competence and cybersecurity hygiene that give rise to vulnerabilities that are capable of being exploited by a range of actors”. To its credit Huawei welcomed the feedback and resolved to work on the issues in partnership with HCSEC, as it has done with UK bodies long term. 

What does Huawei think? 

The company continues to protest its innocence, initially welcoming the UK Government response but in April 2020 issued a strangely-timed letter hitting out at the “groundless criticism” around Huawei’s involvement in the UK’s 5G rollout.

It seems this is particularly aimed at the continuing onslaught from the US Government (see below) and some UK Government MPs who continue to voice dissent at the previous decision to allow UK networks to continue using Huawei gear.

The letter from Huawei vice president Victor Zhang says that the company has good intentions in keeping Britain connected in the present climate. “Right now, by keeping Britain online, we are able to play our part in helping the country through this difficult period.”

“To support the effort, we’ve set up three new warehouses and are redistributing key spare parts around the country to ensure continuity of supply.”

“Despite this, there has been groundless criticism from some about Huawei’s involvement in the UK’s 5G rollout. And there are those who choose to continue to attack us without presenting any evidence. Disrupting our involvement in the 5G rollout would do Britain a disservice.”

What do other Governments say? 

Throughout the whole process, the US Government has been clear that it doesn’t trust Huawei and, as has been well-documented, prevented US companies from dealing with it with a trade ban. But the US hasn’t presented any evidence for its stance publicly, while it doesn’t seem to have been able to convince Governments in the UK and Europe – however, Australia and Japan have blocked Huawei from involvement in 5G networks.

In the run-up to the UK Government decision and afterwards it has suggested that the decision could have implications for sharing of sensitive data. The US presented a dossier to the UK Government early in 2020, but it didn’t register and no details were forthcoming. 

On 5 September 2019 President Trump restated earlier assertions that “Huawei is a big concern of our military, of our intelligence agencies, and we are not doing business with Huawei”. In early 2020 US secretary of state, Mike Pompeo said: “we will never permit American international security information to go across a network that we don’t have trust and confidence in”. Again, this didn’t achieve the desired result and it certainly seems as though the US has lost this tussle. 

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