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UK to phase out Huawei equipment from 5G and full-fibre networks

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UK mobile operators will be banned from buying Huawei equipment for use in 5G networks from the end of the year, the government has announced.

In addition to a ban on new equipment, Digital Secretary, Oliver Dowden said in a speech to the House of Commons, there will be a phased removal of existing equipment from 5G networks by the end of 2027. 

The move comes following new advice from the National Cyber Security Centre (NCSC) on the impact of US sanctions announced in May to restrict Huawei’s ability to use U.S. technology and software to design and manufacture its semiconductors abroad.

Following a review of the consequences of these sanctions by technical experts at the NCSC, it was concluded that the company will need to do a major reconfiguration of its supply chain, as it will no longer have access to the technology on which it currently relies. The team found that the U.S. restrictions make it ‘impossible to continue to guarantee the security of Huawei equipment in the future.’ In addition, according to a statement on the UK government website, ‘there are no alternatives which we have sufficient confidence in.’

Dowden acknowledged that the ban would have an impact on the speed at which the UK will be able to roll out 5G. He said: ‘Today’s decision to ban the procurement of new Huawei 5G equipment from the end of this year will delay roll out by a further year and will add up to half a billion to the costs.’

Of course, the optical communications industry is well versed in the importance of a reliable fibre network infrastructure to support the many thousands of devices that will be connected to 5G. So, it’s worth posing the question, is ‘only’ a year’s delay even a little understated? Particularly because it is not only equipment for 5G that is being phased out, but also Huawei products used in the UK’s full-fibre broadband networks.

Currently in the UK, Huawei provides FTTx access technology and cabinet equipment to a number of operators, however, according to the Department for Digital, Culture, Media & Sport: ‘The UK has managed Huawei’s presence in the UK’s fixed access networks since 2005 and we also need to avoid a situation where broadband operators are reliant on a single supplier for their equipment. As a result, following security advice from our world leading experts, we are advising full fibre operators to transition away from purchasing new Huawei equipment. A technical consultation will determine the transition timetable, but we expect this period to last no longer than two years.’

In response

Philip Jansen, chief executive at UK incumbent, BT - parent company of Openreach, which uses Huawei’s FTTx access equipment - responded, speaking to to the BBC’s Radio 4 Today show, saying: ‘If you were to try and not have Huawei at all [in 5G] ideally we'd want seven years and we could probably do it in five. If you wanted to have no Huawei in the whole of the telecoms infrastructure across the whole of the UK, I think that's impossible to do in under 10 years.

Dowden said in his speech: ‘No new kit is to be added from January 2021, and UK 5G networks will be Huawei free by the end of 2027. By the time of the next election we will have implemented in law an irreversible path for the complete removal of Huawei equipment from our 5G networks. The government will now seek to legislate at the earliest opportunity with a new Telecoms Security Bill to put in place the powers necessary to implement this tough new telecoms security framework.’

In a statement released in response to the news, Ed Brewster, a spokesperson for Huawei UK, said: ‘This disappointing decision is bad news for anyone in the UK with a mobile phone. It threatens to move Britain into the digital slow lane, push up bills and deepen the digital divide. Instead of “levelling up” the government is levelling down and we urge them to reconsider. We remain confident that the new US restrictions would not have affected the resilience or security of the products we supply to the UK

‘Regrettably our future in the UK has become politicized, this is about US trade policy and not security. Over the past 20 years, Huawei has focused on building a better connected UK. As a responsible business, we will continue to support our customers as we have always done. We will conduct a detailed review of what today’s announcement means for our business here and will work with the UK government to explain how we can continue to contribute to a better connected Britain.’

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