In January, the UK had the Huawei problem solved. After extensive analysis from the National Cyber Security Center (NCSC), prime minister Boris Johnson decided that although the Chinese company was “high-risk” it could still have a place in developing 5G networks. But with caveats: it would be limited to 35 per cent of the market and excluded from the most sensitive elements.
Now, everything has changed – and the ongoing trade tussle between the US and China is to blame. UK network operators must remove Huawei’s 5G equipment from their networks by 2027, the government has said following publication of new technical analysis discussing the increased threat that Huawei poses after additional US sanctions were imposed in May. They’ve also been told to “transition away” from using Huawei’s equipment for full-fibre broadband networks within the next two years.
The revised UK position means 5G deployment, which has been beset by dangerous conspiracy theories, will be delayed by years, cost billions extra and cause a major logistical headache for network providers that have already installed Huawei’s technology.
For the last 15 years, Huawei has been building a stronghold within the UK by winning contracts to provide essential components for communications infrastructure while also investing huge sums in research and development. The Chinese firm’s technology is deeply embedded in the networks we rely on to live our lives – and stripping it out will be no easy task.
Huawei emerged from relative international obscurity to grow in the UK and Europe. In April 2005 the company won a contract to help modernise BT’s phone network and merge existing technologies. “It was the creation of an exit out of China,” Ben Verwaayen, the former BT chief executive who handed Huawei its first UK contract said in 2018. “They got a foothold, the rest is history.”
5G is no different. “Given the way there has been a decrease in the vendors supplying this technology, if you want 5G any time soon and you want good performance at a good price point then the equipment that Huawei offers is very attractive,” says Richard Foggie, of The Knowledge Transfer Network, who has worked on 5G innovation in the UK. “They have leading technology in this space. They’ve got there by being good at what they do. They meet the specification at an attractive price point.”
Research by Enders Analysis found that BT uses Huawei for two-thirds of its 2G and 4G sites and has been introducing Huawei’s 5G tech on these sites too; Vodafone has used the firm for a third of its 2G, 3G and 4G sites and is also introducing 5G; H3G has been replacing its previous 3G and 4G networks with Huawei technology with the firm also its “sole 5G supplier”. Only O2 does not use Huawei within its own networks, although Enders says it shares some of its network with Vodafone so may face issues as it upgrades its technology.
The government’s change in stance on Huawei means major and costly changes. Buying new Huawei 5G equipment will be banned from January 2021 and all 5G Huawei equipment must be removed from networks in seven years time. The measures will be enforced through powers in a new Telecoms Security Bill, which will eventually be made law. It’s a change the government says will cost around £2 billion.
“Where the operators are looking to roll out very quickly, which is 5G and fibre, it really puts the breaks on for them,” says Karen Egan, a senior telecoms analyst at Enders. “It certainly slows them down enormously if they have to not just not use Huawei equipment going forward but rip it out as well.”
Ripping out Huawei’s 5G equipment isn’t necessarily straightforward, Egan adds. There are more than 200 towns and cities in the UK already covered by 5G and plenty of these rely on Huawei’s equipment somewhere along the line. Removing every last bit of it will be a logistical nightmare with network operators required to do stock takes of what is being used, send people to remove it and find replacements that work well.
“Long-term, the decision to exclude Huawei cannot be solved with a solution as idealistically simple as just swapping it for an alternative vendor immediately,” Michael Downs, the director of telecom security at Positive Technologies said in a statement. “This whole process – including testing – will have to be started all over again.”
Some 5G technology is also intertwined with older tech – such as 4G products that communicate with 5G products. “With the same supplier of equipment you can dynamically allocate spectrum which is very useful,” Egan says. This process may become more complicated as companies use a mixture of old Huawei tech and replace its 5G products with those from other suppliers.
So if Huawei is integral to how we communicate, why has it been banned? It’s all about chips. On May 15, the US government changed its Foreign-Produced Direct Product Rule (FPDPR) against Huawei to say that unless a licence has been obtained companies can’t transfer to Huawei any items or products that are a result of US tech or software; or any items produced by US software or equipment where Huawei has been involved in the design.
The UK decision is in response to the FPDPR after assessment by the NCSC. In January, it was concluded that while some of Huawei’s software may not be the most secure and its connections to China pose a risk, the company could be included in 5G networks in limited ways. The situation has now changed. New analysis from the NCSC found the sanctions from the US are “very broad” and impact all Huawei’s existing product designs. As a result, there are “significant” security implications that didn’t exist previously.
The NCSC outlines three scenarios that would allow Huawei to keep developing equipment. If the company broke US sanctions, if someone (a non-US firm) designs it new chips, or if another company makes new engineering tools and manufacturing processes to make chips that don’t use US technology.
All of the scenarios are improbable, technically difficult, and bring greater security risks – ones the NCSC doesn’t think are sustainable. The security body says any large changes would not be able to be monitored by GCHQ’s Huawei oversight group that scours the company’s code for problems.
“We think that Huawei products that are adapted to cope with the FDPR change are likely to suffer more security and reliability problems because of the massive engineering challenge ahead of them, and it will be harder for us to be confident in their use within our mitigation strategy,” Ian Levy, the technical director of NCSC wrote in a blog post. The NCSC also added it would create more risk to replace old Huawei equipment that’s already being used than to keep it in the telecoms infrastructure until it is too old to be used anymore.
The upshot is bleak for Huawei. Ed Brewster, a Huawei UK spokesperson, urged the government to reconsider its position. “Regrettably our future in the UK has become politicised, this is about US trade policy and not security. Over the past 20 years, Huawei has focused on building a better connected UK,” he said. The company is going to review its options and consider the next steps that it takes, calling the decision “disappointing”.
For everyone else, prices will increase and Huawei’s rivals are circling. Moments after the Huawei announcement by ministers, Ericsson’s European president issued a statement saying the decision “removes the uncertainty that was slowing down investment decisions around the deployment of 5G”. The company said it was ready to help fill the void that will be left by Huawei. Three UK also announced that it is examining its position but following the initial January decision had picked Nokia to supply its core 5G network.
“In many ways, in lots of areas, we’re going to be left with two suppliers – Nokia and Ericsson – and most operators will want at least two suppliers for resilience issues,” Egan says. “They’re going to have phenomenal bargaining power. The flip side of that, of course, is that the operator is going to be paying much higher prices and ultimately we as consumers will pay.”
Matt Burgess is WIRED’s deputy digital editor. He tweets from @mattburgess1
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