The UK government’s decision to opt for a classic British fudge on the matter of Huawei’s involvement in its 5G networks was the least bad choice.
The options essentially boiled down to: 1. A total ban, 2. No ban at all; 3. Some form of restriction, and we went for number three. Lots of commentators, many of whom only recently acquired their telecoms industry expertise, have pointed at that you can’t have it both ways and either Huawei poses a security threat or it doesn’t.
They do have a point, but the government seems to be saying it’s not a binary matter and that Huawei poses just a bit of a threat. Again, it’s reasonable to question the wisdom of allowing any threat when there are alternative networking kit vendors who everyone seems to think wouldn’t harm a fly.
All this simplistic analysis fails to take into account the commercial reality on the ground. Not only is there already a fair bit of Huawei kit dotted around UK networks that would have to be replaced at considerable expense, but artificially reducing competition to just two players would be bound to drive up costs. Furthermore many still think Huawei’s is the superior offering in a lot of cases, meaning the resulting networks could be materially inferior for Huawei’s absence.
The other aspect that seems to have upset people the most is the implication of the decision on our relationship with the Americans. They’ve been hassling us for ages to ban Huawei entirely but have presumably failed to present any compelling evidence of why we should. So then it came down to a political decision around whether or not we dare upset the US. Well it turns out we do.
Some of the Twitter hissy fits from US politicians have been hilarious. Here’s a selection.
This decision is deeply disappointing for American supporters of the Special Relationship. I fear London has freed itself from Brussels only to cede sovereignty to Beijing. https://t.co/JBU4ARQLjs
— Tom Cotton (@SenTomCotton) January 28, 2020
By allowing Huawei into their 5G network, @BorisJohnson has chosen the surveillance state over the special relationship.
Tragic to see our closest ally, a nation Ronald Reagan once called “incandescent with courage,” turn away from our alliance and the cause of freedom.
— Liz Cheney (@Liz_Cheney) January 28, 2020
The decision by @BorisJohnson to allow Huawei into the UK’s telecommunications network is wrong, dangerous, and a grave shortsighted mistake.
Congress must work on a bipartisan basis to push back on this decision by the UK to open their arms to China’s surveillance state.
— Elise Stefanik (@EliseStefanik) January 28, 2020
President Trump, however, has been uncharacteristically silent on the matter. This possibly implies that he understands the dilemma his British counterpart faced and doesn’t want to throw a genuine attempt at compromise back in the face of a key ally. Having said that we’re only one tweet away from that theory becoming hopelessly obsolete.
For sober balanced analysis it’s best to step away from the rent-a-gobs in politics and the mainstream media and speak to people who have devoted themselves to the business of telecoms. “The decision seems to be consistent with the sentiment of our closest neighbours, though clearly out of sync with many of our Five Eyes partners, and the political arguments are going to rumble on,” Phil Kendall, Analyst at Strategy Analytics told Telecoms.com.
“As operators push network functions out to the edge, the NCSC is taking a clean view of what it wants to see – if it’s a core network function, irrespective of where that is being run, then the virtualization software can’t come from Huawei or any other HRV [high risk vendor].
“Irrespective of the rights or wrongs of the NCSC’s assessment of exactly where the risks become unacceptable for a critical national infrastructure, what we have here is finally some clarity. The UK’s operators can now move forward and plan their 5G network rollouts accordingly. A three year window to get Huawei down to 35% of the 5G RAN feels achievable, though not painless for all involved.”
This 35% of he RAN threshold is the main ‘devil in the detail’ part of the assessment, since it wasn’t immediately obvious how it would be measured.
35% of what, by the way (pop coverage, traffic volume, geo coverage, sites, £££?) And by when?
— Keith Dyer (@keithdyer) January 28, 2020
Kendall was once more on the case.
So the Huawei, or more correctly the High Risk Vendor (HRV) requirements are max 35% of 5G RAN – max 35% of base station sites AND max 35% of expected traffic (so you can’t game that by using HRV in all metro areas). https://t.co/yM6zTh7Vvf pic.twitter.com/KQA2BUZxzC
— Phil Kendall (@philkendall_SA) January 28, 2020
Overall, the UK policy will send a strong signal to the rest of Europe and the world that the use of Chinese equipment poses a security risk and should be limited,” said independent telecoms Analyst John Strand. “I believe that UK have created the framework for a European model and it will put a lot of more focus on security in telecom networks. There is a big chance that Germany will copy the UK model with some small changes.
“The use of Huawei equipment will be expressly prohibited in sensitive geographical areas in the UK, areas selected for national security reasons. Indeed, this is already practiced in France where Huawei equipment in restricted in Toulouse, home of Airbus and the European aerospace industry. A similar policy exists for Brest where French nuclear submarines are located.”
We also spoke to Ovum analyst Dario Talmesio and asked him for his initial thoughts “Not surprising at all, the only bad news for Huawei and CSPs is that Huawei need to be restricted to 35% share of the radio, which is a significant restriction,” he said. “Overall reducing the number of players, and thus industry diversity, is harmful for any technology. Diversity helps ecosystems and the UK will have a bit less differentiation as a result of the decision.
“CSPs in the UK have benefitted from the commercial pressure coming from Huawei. Specifically, margins in the UK are relatively low by international comparison meaning that any increase in cost to deploy and maintain networks will directly impact 5G rollout plans.”
On the other hand polling firm YouGov recently asked a bunch of random Brits what they thought of letting Huawei be involved and sentiment seemed to be against the idea. But then again those punters were presumably deriving their views from information provided by the aforementioned media dilletantes and partisan politicians, so it’s probably best to stick with a policy of not letting the man in the street dictate industrial policy.
The long and short of it is that Huawei is a major part of the UK telecoms industry and banning it entirely would have created major problems. Our security experts think the risk it poses can be mitigated and managed, and have clearly seen nothing from the Americans to contradict that. From a political perspective it’s good to see the UK making its own minds up, rather than just picking which superpower to appease.