Huawei waits it out on possible UK ban

Chinese technology multinational Huawei opens its first store in Barcelona. [EPA-EFE/Marta Pérez]

Chinese telecommunications giant Huawei has said it is remaining patient in light of media reports that the UK government is charting a gradual phase-out of its equipment in 5G network infrastructure, which could lead to a blanket ban.

The Sunday Telegraph reported this weekend that a new review by the UK’s National Cybersecurity Centre (NSCS) is set to highlight that Huawei equipment is no longer safe to use, due to new restrictions imposed by the US Department of Commerce.

Meanwhile, on Monday (6 July), the UK’s Digital Secretary Oliver Dowden, confirmed that the NSCS had submitted its report to the government.

Dowden told BBC Radio 4 that the position of the UK was to “diversify away from these so-called high-risk vendors, of which Huawei is the principal one.”

A Huawei spokesperson told EURACTIV today that the company is “waiting it out” for the public disclosure of the report, in the hope that some of the media publicity around the issue may have become inflated, and Huawei could take part in some capacity in the UK’s 5G network in the future.

Speaking of the potential ban, the spokesperson added that should Huawei be frozen out of the UK’s 5G network infrastructure, then focus will turn more intently on development in the EU.

Despite a potential prohibition on Huawei equipment for UK 5G, on Monday the Director-General of France’s National Cybersecurity Agency told Les Echos that while Huawei would be subject to certain standards, the company would not face an outright ban in France.

In May, the US Department of Commerce announced new restrictions on sales to Huawei of chips made with American equipment, in a bid to “narrowly and strategically target Huawei’s acquisition of semiconductors.”

The move was seen as an upping of the ante against the Chinese firm, following the Trump administration’s May 2019 placing of Huawei on the US entity list – making it difficult to obtain licences for American companies to do business with Huawei.

The May restrictions introduced by the US administration led the NSCS to embark on a review on Huawei’s involvement in the UK’s future 5G network infrastructure.

“Clearly the US sanctions will present challenges and that is what that advice is about,” Dowden told the BBC.

The Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, which Dowden heads, will be responsible for digesting the contents of the report, before feeding it back to Prime Minister Boris Johnson.

Change in tact

A ban on Huawei involvement in the UK’s 5G networks would signal a change of tack from the UK’s previous position in January, where Huawei was granted a limited involvement in 5G development.

The UK government had planned for Huawei to be excluded from the sensitive core of networks while putting a 35% cap on their involvement in non-sensitive parts of 5G network infrastructure.

Nevertheless, the u-turn is even more pronounced from the head of NSCS, Ciaran Martin, who told a Brussels audience in 2019 that the UK was able to mitigate the alleged security risks presented by Huawei, and that at the time Washington had yet to present any evidence of allegations of espionage conducted by the Chinese company.

Martin had been due to step down from his post at the helm of the NSCS in June this year, but, in light of an increase in cyber criminality as part of the coronavirus pandemic, has decided to remain in his post until August.

UK MPs will probe senior Huawei executives further this week, as part of a sitting of Parliament’s Science and Technology committee.

[Edited by Sam Morgan]

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