UK’s Brexit-like indecision on Huawei is injuring everybody

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Oh, the pain of indecision. It’s something the UK federal government understands a thing or more about. For a modification, the huge concern the the nation’s dithering over today isn’t Brexit, however whether to permit mobile providers to utilize Huawei devices in their 5G network facilities.

This issue has actually been silently dragging out for months, and in the meantime, the tech market hasn’t been stalling. Two providers, EE and Vodafone, have both released their 5G networks, both utilizing Huawei devices. You may believe that makes it too late for the federal government to choose to put a restriction on the business, and yet it’s not.

UK networks have actually long depended on Huawei devices, however over the previous year the nation has actually come under substantial pressure from the United States — which has provided its own restriction on the Chinese business — to reevaluate this dependence due to security issues. It’s triggered analysis from a variety of security bodies, which aren’t constant with one another.


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Earlier this year, the technical director of UK security agency GCHQ called Huawei’s security standards “shoddy” following the release of a report by the agency in March that rebuked the company for failing to fix long-standing security flaws. Meanwhile, the UK’s National Cyber Security Centre said that the country of origin for equipment has no bearing on whether it increases the security risk, and the best way to create a secure network is to use gear from a mix of companies. Then there’s the Parliament’s Science and Technology Committee, which took the middle road by advising that Huawei kit shouldn’t be used in a network’s core, but could be used more generally.

This conflicting advice, plus the constantly evolving situation in the US, means the government has stalled on making a decision. Next week, the government will issue a long-awaited telecoms supply chain review, but Reuters reported on Friday that it will once again not contain a decision on Huawei. And so the conversation continues, but the longer it drags on, the worse the knock-on effect for the carriers, for Huawei, for mobile users in the UK and for the country’s political reputation abroad.

It’s this final concern that was raised on Friday by Parliament’s Intelligence and Security Committee. Members of the committee are worried that the UK’s inability to decide definitively one way or the other is making it look bad, and causing “serious damage” to its relationships with other countries, particularly its allies.

Some might say that ship has already sailed. Famously, the country is still trying to work out if and how it’s going to leave the EU over two years after the Brexit referendum took place, frustrating many countries in the process. And just as with Brexit, outgoing Prime Minister Theresa May is washing her hands of making a final call on the issue.

Next week, the UK will get a new prime minister, either Jeremy Hunt or Boris Johnson, and the Intelligence Committee wants whoever comes to power to make a decision on Huawei as soon as possible.

“The debate over whether or not Huawei should be allowed to supply equipment to the UK 5G network has dragged on long enough and is damaging the UK’s international relationships,” the committee’s chair, Dominic Grieve, told The Independent. “The new prime minister must take a decision as a matter of priority.”

It’s one of the UK government’s stated aims that the country should be a leader in 5G, but while it’s been one of the first in the world to launch its next-generation networks, that leadership isn’t spilling over into issuing political directives about infrastructure.

What makes it more frustrating is that a leak from the UK’s National Security Council in May — which resulted in the sacking of Defence Secretary Gavin Williamson, suggesting that the government had made its mind up — actually came to nothing. It would have been more sensible to have “confirmed it one way or another, and got that decision made” at that particular moment in time, said Matthew Howett, an analyst at Assembly Research.

Howett added that it can be interpreted as “encouraging” that the government hasn’t told the networks to hit the brakes on their 5G rollout just yet. The expectation is that next week’s report will suggest the best course of action is to maintain a diverse range of suppliers, he said, which could hint toward the government’s decision being in favor of Huawei. The company is certainly hoping so.

Huawei had no comment for this piece, but in a public statement issued Friday, Victor Zhang, Huawei’s head of global government affairs, reiterated the idea that “diversity improves resilience in networks.”

For now, the situation remains in an awkward limbo with the government weighing whether to appease its allies or disrupt its 5G rollout and forgo its own 5G leadership position, all while trying to act in the best interests of national security.

A report from Assembly Research published this April suggested that if the government does decide to ban Huawei, it could cost the British economy £6.8 billion ($8.5 billion) and delay the widespread availability of 5G by up to two years.

“The reality is that removing Huawei at this stage would just be so disastrous for everyone,” Howett said. “It’s just not something that is practical — the embarrassment would be even more considerable.”

Update July 22: Added more specific comments made by GCHQ regarding the threat posed by Huawei in the UK.