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Government Bans Huawei Kit from Core UK 5G Mobile Networks

Wednesday, April 24th, 2019 (7:39 am) - Score 2,664
5g uk mobile broadband

Mobile operators Three UK, Vodafone, EE (BT) and O2 are to be officially told by the Government that they will be banned from deploying hardware and software from Chinese tech giant Huawei into the core of their future 5G based mobile broadband networks, although non-core 5G kit (antennas etc.) will be exempt.

The final decision was taken by the UK Prime Minister, Theresa May, during yesterday’s National Security Council (NSC). However it’s understood that a number of her cabinet colleagues had been calling for a much more aggressive total ban (e.g. Home Secretary Sajid Javid MP, Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt MP and Defence Secretary Gavin Williamson MP).

The move follows a recent report from the oversight board of the Huawei Cyber Security Evaluation Centre (HCSEC), which warned that “further significant technical issues” had been identified in Huawei’s engineering processes, leading to “new risks in the UK telecommunications networks” (full summary). At the same time it also said that “no material progress has been made by Huawei in the remediation of the issues.”

The board said it could “only provide limited assurance” that all risks to national security from Huawei’s involvement in the UK’s critical networks could be sufficiently mitigated long-term. Naturally Huawei has always denied accusations that they are a security threat and in a public letter said, “Huawei has never and will never use UK-based hardware, software, or information gathered in the UK or anywhere else globally, to assist other countries in gathering intelligence. We would not do this in any country.”

However, critics of the company often point toward China’s new National Intelligence Law, which was passed in 2017 and demands that organisations “support, co-operate with and collaborate in national intelligence work.” The absence of true democracy in China might thus, they argue, make it very difficult for any company to refuse such a request.

Margot James, UK Minister for Digital, said:

“The National Cyber Security Centre is respected the world over, their advice is that we can manage/minimise any risk Huawei might pose to telecoms infrastructure and Theresa May is absolutely right to act on that advice.”

The move puts the UK at odds with the USA, which has taken a much stricter line and even threatened to cease the exchange of secret intelligence information with countries that allow kit from Huawei into their core networks. The PM will no doubt be hoping that her partial ban is enough to avoid such an outcome.

The difficulty for telecoms operators is that Huawei makes very good and affordable kit. A lot of operators and broadband ISPs had already planned to work closely with the Chinese firm in order to deploy new networks (e.g. 5G and fibre broadband) and any new restrictions would thus impact their plans (i.e. the potential for much higher costs, worse performance and significantly slower roll-out).

On the other hand BT (EE) has already confirmed that they’re removing related kit from their core mobile network (here) and Vodafone have “paused” deployments, albeit reluctantly, into their core network (here). So far none of the operators have applied such measures to the less sensitive non-core part of their networks.

On the surface today’s announcement doesn’t appear to mention existing 4G deployments, although operators have long warned that they can’t do 4G without 5G and any impact on the supply chain would thus have far reaching consequences. We’ll be asking for the mobile operators feedback on this decision and will update again later.

UPDATE 10:11am

We’ve had the first comments back.

A BT Spokesperson said:

“We’re aware of the reports around a government decision on Huawei’s involvement in 5G networks. We haven’t been directly notified of any detail as yet, and we will continue to liaise with the NCSC and UK Government to understand the latest decisions around the usage of Huawei for 5G networks.”

A Vodafone Spokesperson said:

“We do not have Huawei equipment in our core network in the UK. We look forward to seeing the report.”

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Mark Jackson
By Mark Jackson
Mark is a professional technology writer, IT consultant and computer engineer from Dorset (England), he also founded ISPreview in 1999 and enjoys analysing the latest telecoms and broadband developments. Find me on Twitter, , Facebook and Linkedin.
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17 Responses
  1. Avatar NE555

    Funny how the BBC has given completely the opposite spin on the same story.

    “Huawei row: UK to let Chinese firm help build 5G network

    “The government has given Chinese telecoms giant Huawei the go-ahead to supply equipment for the UK 5G data network despite senior ministers warning it poses a security risk.

    “According to the Daily Telegraph, Huawei’s involvement in the 5G network would include helping to build parts of antennas or other “non-core” infrastructure.”

    https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-48032286

    So it boils down to exactly what activate elements are considered “core”. There’s a hell of a lot more technology to 5G than antennas – what about base stations and signalling gateways? Whereas the “core network” could just mean a relatively dumb IP or MPLS backbone that glues everything together.

    Interception is more likely to be done at the edge, which has the metadata and intelligence necessary to select traffic of interest.

    • Yes it’s one of those partial moves, where banning from core but not non-core depends upon how the Government chooses in the detail to define where that separation exists. I suspect the full announcement won’t give us much more to go on.

    • Avatar TheFacts

      I like the strange use of the word ‘help’.

  2. Avatar Martin Pitt - Aquiss

    IMHO there is an element of lobbyist from the old network companies, such as Cisco etc, putting pressure on governments and creating media noise, who have basically lost marketshare to Huawei and others. They are using the security card, imho, the prop up, their weakened businesses because they are behind the curve when it comes R&D.

    • Avatar Joe

      This is a case of “Just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean people aren’t out to get you”

      Huawei kit might be better/cheaper and rivals behind the curve. Rivals aside it doesn’t mean that security concerns are not legitimate.

  3. Avatar C George

    The different spin given by different media outlets is indeed very interesting. The main risk is probably not capturing data, most of which is likely to be encrypted, it is DoS attacks. If the intended embedding of 5G into ‘smart’ devices is as far reaching as is being suggested, then anything from traffic lights, automated cars, lighting and heating systems, logistics systems, 5G corporate networks etc etc could be brought down.

    There is a real risk in the future but I am not sure Huawei is much more of a risk than some of the other players? Personally I may be a Luddite but I am not sure automated everything is the future I want but I expect it is coming regardless. I was interested that the first thing my son did when he came back from Uni the other day was disconnect the Google Home speaker that is in the living room.

  4. Avatar Meadmodj

    Some countries have banned them outright but hopefully this means the UK is taking a more sensible approach. The reality is that there is a security risk with any make of kit. It is just who has access to, knowledge of, the vulnerabilities. Some providers are now moving to white boxes and developing their own software but those that buy off the shelf need to be guarded regardless of the supplier. Huawei can help themselves by being more open regarding their designs to major customers. In some cases “better the devil you know”.

    So I am assuming from this announcement that we will still use Huawei as long as any security issues (hardware or software) can be mitigated.

    • Avatar Joe

      “So I am assuming from this announcement that we will still use Huawei as long as any security issues (hardware or software) can be mitigated.”

      They can’t easily. Indeed the report is quite clear how little has been achieved in that regard.

    • Avatar Meadmodj

      Whilst the HCSEC states that there has been no material progress from Huawei it acknowledges that the providers can minimise implications on kit not exposed publicly. Despite the pressure from the US, the HCSEC report/update and the NSC it has still been concluded that it does not need to be a total ban and therefore my assumption is that they regard the mitigations being made by the providers as being acceptable while Huawei gets its act together.

  5. Avatar Mike

    No doubt the government bending over for the US once again…

    • Avatar C George

      It is a tough line to follow though. Rejecting Huewei will hardly help any potential post Brexit trade deals with China. Open international trade agreements are part of the cornerstone of the Brexitiers, bowing down to US pressure at the expense of China is hardly going to help that. I am not going to use this forum to argue the rights or wrongs of Brexit (although I have a very firm opinion on the matter), but the benefits of working with China outweigh the risks IMO. This puts us firmly at odds with the Trump administration and they would punish us for it. May has probably done the only sensible thing given the doubt and uncertainty, and that is to take a middle ground that tries to appease both sides. I am sure the decision is driven by politics more than national security.

  6. Avatar C George

    I’m no expert in 5G but I believe there will be a lot of ‘smarts’ in the access network as well as the core. For example, even the antennas are not just dumb devices, the will have steering and find and follow technology and who knows what else. Moving onto the base stations and gateways, these are clearly active equipment. DoS style attacks may be more disruptive in the core but the access network is probably still vulnerable. Hacking into the odd access device will likely have minimal impact but a wider scale attack that targets large volumes of access devices could have a big impact. Careful oversight and security testing will mitigate many of the risks as well as building in fail safe, fallback solutions. For example, a ‘smart’ traffic light should not just show red lights when there is a problem, it should default to a scheduled operation as traffic lights do today. Blind dependence on 5G for all core infrastructure is probably not a smart move – there needs to be backup systems in place to allow basic operation of infrastructure to continue should comms fail. Designed in resilience in processes is key if you build mission critical systems. Also, it would be nice if operators used a mixture of vendors to help mitigate risk. Putting all your eggs in one basket is a high risk strategy in my opinion.

  7. Avatar dragoneast

    Plenty of false prophets down the centuries have proclaimed the imminent Second Coming and arrival of heaven on earth. Perhaps 5G is the latest example.

    Back in the real world, in contrast to the fantasy world of our imagination, things are constrained by resources – principally money – which does not grow on trees, contrary to our belief, even despite the Bank of mummy and daddy. It’s the reason why we can’t use the technology we have already in almost all cases.

    But beware children, the bogeyman is out to get you. As surely as he always has been.

  8. Avatar John

    Would totally banning Huawei kit have massive implications on BT and Openreach in terms of joint research in BT’s labs, and also FTTC DSLAMS, Head ends/GPON’s?

    No one appears to be considering this in the debate, or I haven’t seen it anywhere yet.

    • Avatar JohnC

      There has never been any suggestion of removing existing Huawei kit from the OpenReach NGA infrastructure.
      There won’t be either.
      I don’t think the FTTC DSLAMS are considered part of the “core” network.

      While this debate was ongoing OpenReach gave contracts to Huawei/Nokia to supply G.Fast and FTTP infrastructure.
      Basically they ditched ECI for Nokia and kept Huawei.

      Some “Core” 4G Huawei kit is being replaced, that’s about it.

  9. Avatar Michael V

    This is a massive blow to the Operators that use Huawei. We still have not seen evidence of this so called security threat.

  10. Avatar Hal-9000

    It is possible that Huawei technologie may be a security risk. But so may other companies tech for 4G/5G especially if the security services can’t access the tech because the company has made it to well and, will not allow them access to their tech to see if it can be compromised.
    Other companies may allow the security services in because, of long standing relationship’s but, Huawei may not, plus it’s in China that may not bend to other countries security services wishing to access tech they have created or acquired.
    So the question is, would you want the UK and USA security services to access tech to monitor you or, China only. It’s possible the security threat from chine is nothing more than, smoke and mirrors by our security services, governments, along with others because they can’t or, don’t have the time to crack the security of the Huawei tech. Unlike others Nokia etc, were they possibly have had long standing relationship with, access to back doors and specs. To enable monitoring.

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