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Why Huawei may be allowed in the UK 5G network

23 January 2020

2:44 PM

23 January 2020

2:44 PM

Brandon Lewis, the security minister, is something of a genius at winsomely saying next to nothing. Even so I emerged from my interview with him on my show last night persuaded that the National Security Council and the Prime Minister would next week give the go ahead to the controversial use of Huawei kit in the roll-out of superfast 5G mobile broadband.

It was something about the way he said that he utterly respected the advice of the security services and would take very seriously the evidence provided by BT and Vodafone.

Here is why this matters.

The security services, I understand, have concluded that GCHQ and the National Cyber Security Centre have the relevant expertise and the capacity to make sure that Chinese agents provocateurs do not in any way undermine the security of the UK, if it were to turn out that use of the Chinese kit somehow gives them a backdoor either to eavesdrop or somehow to control a vital part of UK communications infrastructure.

So – and I have this from multiple sources – our own spooks believe they can manage and contain the risks.

Equally there are powerful business and economic arguments being put to ministers by BT and Vodafone, who already use Huawei kit in the existing 4G network and (in the case of BT) in the existing fixed broadband network.

They use Huawei and want to buy more because – they say – it is better quality and more advanced than the alternatives made by Europe’s Nokia and Ericsson.

Their principle argument is that if they are instructed by the government to eschew Huawei, because of the risks, then the roll-out of 5G would be set back by two years, that of full-fibre broadband by around four years, and the write-offs for UK telecoms companies would run to billions.

Given both Johnson’s general election commitments to accelerating the delivery of superfast broadband, and the connection between economic growth and digital connectivity, there would be significant costs for the PM and for the UK banning Huawei.

So why is prohibiting Huawei even an issue?

Well it is because the American government says that allowing a Chinese actor like Huawei to physically integrate highly sophisticated equipment into such an important piece of infrastructure would imperil UK security.

A delegation from the US came to the UK to argue that case a couple of weeks ago. And US officials are apparently unimpressed by BT’s pledge to remove all Huawei stuff from the core of its network, and use it only in the less critical outer parts.

The point is that the US and the UK have intimate security relations, through the Five Eyes alliance with NZ, Canada and Australia, so US opposition could put UK security at risk – if the US were to respond to the investment in Huawei kit by restricting sensitive communication with the UK.

What is also relevant is that many years ago Australia prohibited the use of Huawei network equipment by any of its telecoms companies.

So there is a huge amount at stake for the UK and for Boris Johnson in this decision.

Which is why what Lewis said last night – in relation to having the deepest respect for the UK security services and for wanting to understand the arguments of significant UK companies – matters.

What was also striking was that he did not push back when I said that there is some evidence that what is really motivating Trump is less the security issues and more the business battle between the US and China for superpower status in the tech industries.

Here is where I suspect the argument will ultimately crystallise for Johnson.

If a combination of our security services and our telecoms companies are saying that the Huawei risks can be contained and the costs of banning Huawei would be huge, which they are, then the prime minister risks looking (to use his phrase) like a vassal of Trump and the US if he were to ban Huawei.

Which he won’t want to do, however much he will rightly be wary of the inexorable rise of an anti-democratic China and its growing presence in the industries that underpin our way of life.

Which is why I assume, in this his first spectacularly important decision since the election, Johnson will gulp and allow Huawei into 5G.

Robert Peston is ITV’s Political Editor. This article originally appeared on his ITV news blog.


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