U.K. bans Huawei 5G equipment in reversal of January decision

Business & Technology

The British government has reversed its earlier decision to open a narrow door to 5G technology from Chinese telecom giant Huawei. By the end of 2020, purchases of Huawei 5G equipment will be banned, and all of the company’s advanced technology will be stripped from British networks by the end of 2027.

illustration of a cell tower, the letters 5G, and the british flag
Illustration by Derek Zheng

The United Kingdom has made a dramatic U-turn on its decision to let Chinese telecom giant Huawei into British 5G networks. The Wall Street Journal reports (paywall):

Oliver Dowden, the British minister in charge of digital issues, told the House of Commons on Tuesday that new purchases of Huawei 5G equipment would be barred starting the end of this year and that the Chinese company’s gear would have to be stripped out of British networks by the end of 2027. As recently as January, the U.K. said it could mitigate the risk of Huawei equipment in its networks.

The earlier decision of the British government had been a compromise position of allowing Huawei’s 5G technology into the country, but tightening security on “core” networks.

The “situation took a major turn in May,” per Quartz, because a U.S. decision to bar “companies that use American technology or software from selling essential semiconductors” to Huawei led to an emergency review of policy. The National Cyber Security Centre then “revised its assessment of Huawei technology and found it to be unsafe as a result of the U.S. ban.”

Some say the U.K. decision doesn’t go far enough, and want Huawei barred from British 5G immediately and its equipment expunged from older telecom networks. Take, for example, a tweet from Luke de Pulford, a staff member in the U.K. parliament and founder of the Inter-Parliamentary Alliance on China:

The Huawei announcement isn’t what it seems, guys.

– Likely spending spree on equipment until ban in Jan 2021

– Such equipment can therefore be used until 2027

– No commitment to remove 3/4G including for systems essential to 5G

Others warned against “too rapid a removal of Huawei equipment,” for example, Philip Jansen, the chief executive of U.K. telecom company BT, who said that if British companies were barred from software upgrades from Huawei, that could create “gaps in critical software that could have security implications far bigger than anything we’re talking about,” according to TechCrunch.

Huawei’s status in the U.K. has been closely tied to overall China relations, both by the Huawei U.K. chairman — who said Britain’s move might “simply throw away” a long relationship with China — and Liú Xiǎomíng 刘晓明, the Chinese ambassador to the U.K., who equated banning Huawei with treating “China as an enemy.”

Huawei might not need the U.K. market, though, to survive: Even with strong political headwinds and a widespread economic downturn, global demand for Huawei’s technology led to a 13% increase in company revenue in the first half of 2020, per Caixin (paywall).