Huawei - A Ban in the Balance

North America has already banned US companies from working with Huawei so with that in mind and with a decision by the UK about Huawei’s involvement in the country’s 5G infrastructure due very soon, we take a closer look at the issues involved.

5G

The UK has been awaiting the development of the 5th generation of mobile broadband infrastructure for a long time.  Most carriers currently use low-band spectrum or LTE, which provides great coverage area and penetration yet it is getting very crowded and peak data speeds only top out at around 100Mbps. 5G, on the other hand, offers 3 different Spectrum bands.  More frequencies, faster speeds and less latency should mean big improvements in broadband (particularly commercial) and an end to slowdowns during busy times of day that have been experienced due to the overcrowding of the current limited LTE.

Rumblings

The first rumblings about Huawei’s alleged security threat can be traced right back to 2001, although this was an allegation from India's intelligence agencies that Huawei was helping the Taliban.

Following a Cisco lawsuit against Huawei in 2003 over the alleged copying of intellectual property (copying of software and violation of patents), concerns were raised in 2007 over whether a venture between Cisco rival 3Com and Huawei should be permitted due to a perceived lack of transparency in Huawei.

In 2010, more alarm bells started ringing and a Cyber Security Evaluation Centre (HCSEC) was opened in Banbury, where Huawei products and equipment were tested for security holes. The factory-style centre was set up as a partnership between Huawei and the UK authorities to make sure that the UK’s telecoms infrastructure is not compromised by the involvement of Huawei.

More Recently

The source of the more recent concerns goes back to 2012 when a US House of Representatives Intelligence Committee report flagged-up the potential for Chinese state influence from both Huawei and ZTE. 

Fast-forward several years, and several further allegations, including those arising from WikiLeaks, and the arrival of President Trump have put Huawei in the spotlight.  In summer 2018, the ‘Five-Eyes’ espionage chiefs from Australia, Canada, New Zealand, the U.K. and the U.S. agreed at a meeting to contain the global growth of Chinese telecoms company Huawei (the world’s biggest producer of telecoms equipment) because of the threat that it could be using its phone network equipment to spy for China. 

From here, bans on Huawei Technologies Ltd. as a supplier for fifth-generation networks equipment followed in the US, Australia, and New Zealand, and Meng Wanzhou, the chief financial officer of Huawei, was detained in Vancouver at the request of U.S. authorities, for allegedly violating US sanctions on Iran. 

In 2019, the US Department of Justice (DOJ) charged Huawei with bank fraud and stealing trade secrets. 

The UK

As one of the ‘Five-Eyes’ countries, therefore, further scrutiny of Huawei and objections to its products being included in the UK’s 5G infrastructure were on the cards.

In the UK in January 2020, however, the government said that it would allow Huawei equipment to be used in the country’s 5G network, but not in core network functions or critical national infrastructure, and not in nuclear and military sites.  The UK also decided that Huawei’s equipment would only be allowed to make up 35 per cent of the network's periphery, including radio masts.  It was also understood at the time (following the publishing of a document published by the National Cyber Security Centre, NCSC) that the UK’s networks would have three years to comply with caps on the use of Huawei's equipment.

This led to White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney visiting to help dissuade the UK from using Huawei’s products in phone networks.

Also, Robert Strayer, the US deputy assistant secretary for cyber and communications while on a tour of Europe, warned that allowing Huawei to provide key aspects of the 5G network infrastructure could allow China to undermine it and to have access to “sensitive data”.  Mr Strayer piled more pressure on the UK by warning that if the UK adopts Huawei as a 5G technology vendor it could threaten aspects of intelligence sharing between the US and UK.

New Sanctions From The US

The US has kept up the pressure on Huawei this year by announcing new sanctions that will stop Huawei and third-party companies that make its chips from using any US technology and software to design and manufacture products. Also, the US government has reiterated its concerns that Huawei has Chinese military backing and, as such, is a threat to national security.

New Report Could Mean A Change

Now, following the UK government recently receiving a report from GCHQ's National Cyber Security Centre (NCSC), and in the light of the new US Sanctions, some commentators are predicting that the UK could be likely to change its mind again.  This further possible move away from Huawei could be especially likely since Prime Minister Boris Johnson has acknowledged that he would not want the UK to be "vulnerable to a high-risk state vendor".

Looking Forward

Although the UK government now has the NCSC report, and a further move away from Huawei looks likely, a final public decision may not be announced for another two weeks, during which time Huawei has indicated that it is open to discussion.

If GCHQ's National Cyber Security Centre (NCSC) has found legitimate reasons why Huawei’s products pose a security (and diplomatic) risk as part of the 5G network’s periphery it is unlikely that the specific details will be revealed, and the UK will have to find alternative suppliers.  Tensions are already high between the UK and China over Hong Kong and bad news about Huawei certainly will not improve matters.   

Some critics have said that it appears that UK policy is being dictated by the Trump administration, but it is clear that in order for the UK to deliver on its broadband 2025 target, keep costs down, and avoid suffering the collateral damage of an argument that’s primarily between the US and China, some clever manoeuvring may be necessary.