UK government says: ‘We can manage any threat from Huawei’

24 April 2019 | Alan Burkitt-Gray

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The UK appears to be following Germany’s lead in deciding mobile operators can use Huawei kit in parts of their networks.

Leaks following a meeting yesterday of the National Security Council, chaired by the Prime Minister, Theresa May, said the Chinese company would be allowed “limited access to help build parts of the network such as antennas and other ‘non-core’ infrastructure”.

Huawei welcomed the news. “This green light means that UK businesses and consumers will have access to the fastest and most reliable networks thanks to Huawei’s cutting edge technology,” a company executive told Capacity.

“While we await a formal government announcement, we are pleased that the UK is continuing to take an evidence-based approach to its work and we will continue work cooperatively with the government, and the industry.”

That remark about “a formal government announcement” was telling. Margot James, the UK government’s minister for digital and the creative industries said via Twitter: “In spite of cabinet leaks to the contrary, final decision yet to be made on managing threats to telecoms infrastructure.”

But she also said that the UK’s National Cyber Security Centre (NCSC) – part of Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ), the national electronic intelligence unit – “is respected the world over”.

She added: “Their advice is that we can manage/minimise any risk Huawei might pose to telecoms infrastructure.”

James said May “is absolutely right to act on that advice”.

The likely decision follows the lead of Germany’s Chancellor, Angela Merkel, who said last month that the country would set its own security standards for 5G and not follow US warnings to ban Huawei. 

Merkel said: “Security, particularly when it comes to the expansion of the 5G network, but also elsewhere in the digital area, is a very important concern for the German government, so we are defining our standards for ourselves.”

The UK leaks so far seem to show a vague understanding of 5G technology – with references to “antennas” rather than the radio access networks (RANs) and even by some politicians to “the UK’s new 5G network”, as if the country was going to have just one, built by the state.

Operators in the UK have tended to show their support for using Huawei kit – or at least having the choice. Excluding Huawei from the UK’s 5G infrastructure would be “massively disruptive” to Vodafone UK’s plans to move on to the next generation of mobile technology, a senior executive told Capacity and other media last month.

Helen Lamprell, Vodafone UK’s general counsel and external affairs director, said that if an embargo on Huawei left only two vendors for main parts of 5G infrastructure – Ericsson and Nokia – that would remove “their incentive to improve”.

At the same time, Scott Petty, CTO of Vodafone UK, said that the disruption would be particularly severe as the company already uses some Huawei technology in part of its 4G RAN and it currently plans to upgrade those base stations to 5G using the same vendor.

If the government really does allow Vodafone and its UK rivals – BT’s EE, Telefónica’s O2 and CK Hutchison’s Three – to use Huawei in the RAN that would give them some comfort.

Huawei equipment is “low risk” in the RAN, said Petty last month. But the company’s equipment is not used in the transport sector, the core network, even though it is “one of the leading vendors”.

Chi Onwurah, Labour MP for Newcastle Central and a former telecoms engineer who worked for MTN in Nigeria, told Capacity: “I have been saying for years now that there is a hole the size of a mobile phone network in the Government’s cyber security strategy. It is good that the development of 5G is encouraging them to review that but they don’t seem to have any idea of what a 5G network is or its architecture.”

The Daily Telegraph, which first reported yesterday’s National Security Council meeting, said that a number of Cabinet ministers “raised concerns about the approach” – giving the impression that May could backtrack on the apparent decision if the political backlash is too strong.

Backbench MP Tom Tugendhat, who chairs the foreign affairs committee in the UK House of Commons, came out against Huawei. “It is unwise to co-operate in an area of critical national infrastructure with a state that can at best be described as not always friendly,” he told the paper.

Jeremy Fleming, the head of GCHQ, is expected to speak at a security conference today of a number of cyber threats delivered by the internet. It is sharing information with banks and other companies, he is expected to say.

Onwurah said to Capacity: “We need a robust security framework which – of course – prioritises national security and enables those involved in the procurement of 5G networks, whether in the private or public sector, to determine which suppliers do not meet security requirements whether for technical or other reasons, such as ownership or undue influence from other nations.”

She added: “Such a framework needs to recognise 5G is not one network, neither is it wholly new build, and it has multiple layers, standards, suppliers and customers. I am sure the engineers and security specialists in GCHQ, Ofcom and elsewhere can provide such a framework, if they are asked the right questions and given the resources and political support to answer them. Unfortunately this Government does not seem capable of doing that.”

She pointed out that “while the US has competing telecoms manufacturers they may want to protect, the UK does not, what we do have is a strategic cyber capability we want to support, grow and invest in”.