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UK Broadband ISP Networks Facing Huge Risk from Huawei Fallout

Saturday, May 25th, 2019 (12:01 am) - Score 5,322
broken uk internet connection and running man

Concerns are growing that many consumers, broadband ISPs and mobile operators in the United Kingdom could be impacted much more severely than first thought after the President of the USA, Donald J. Trump, signed an executive order to “prohibit transactions posing an unacceptable risk to the national security of the USA.”

At first glance you may well wonder how Trump’s decision, which directly hit companies like Huawei (i.e. an effective ban due to the present security concerns), could impact the UK. The answer stems from a matter which is often overlooked by the casual observer (it’s a similar story in the Brexit debate), that of the complicated and deeply rooted global supply chain for technologies and patents.

When you buy a broadband router, Smartphone, core network kit or some other piece of hardware from a major company like Huawei then you’re not purchasing something that 100% originates in China. The hardware you purchase is in fact made up of many different components and these are manufactured all over the world. Likewise those components also have patents, many of which can be traced back to the USA.

Complex Supply Chain

The problem this creates was starkly illustrated after British CPU firm, ARM, announced earlier this week that it was ordering all of its employees and contractors to cease work on “all active contracts, support entitlements, and any pending engagements” with Huawei. Since then we’ve seen similar moves or preparations by Broadcom, Intel, Qualcomm, Xilinx and Panasonic. All sell bits and pieces to the Chinese giant.

Likewise Google has already pulled some of the support it can provide for the Android OS software used by Huawei’s Smartphones, which is ironically a decision that seems to be counter-intuitive as a loss of support could leave consumers who own such devices at a huge disadvantage (e.g. loss of future feature updates and possible some future security patches).

A Spokesperson for Huawei said:

“We value our close relationships with our partners, but recognise the pressure some of them are under, as a result of politically motivated decisions. We are confident this regrettable situation can be resolved and our priority remains to continue to deliver world-class technology and products to our customers around the world.”

In one fell swoop Trump hasn’t just hit Huawei smack in the balls, he’s also screwed up a hugely complicated global supply chain (threatening jobs and economic growth across a whole sector in the process) and potentially made millions of consumers less secure in the process. Nice, thanks Donald.

Just to be clear, none of the companies in this complex supply chain want to stop working with Huawei, but equally many have even bigger customers and legal considerations in the western side of the world (particularly the USA) and those will take precedence.

Huawei’s Nuclear Fallout

Before all this the only concern that Huawei and its supporters in the UK telecoms sector had, which includes many of the markets major operators (Openreach, BT, EE, Vodafone etc.), was whether or not the UK Government would carry forward their preliminary decision to ban the firm from supplying core networks (non-core kit would be left alone). Further context here.

At the time the Government’s position was a huge issue, but fast forward a few weeks and it now seems more akin to a small hill against a veritable mountain of Chernobyl fallout (side note – that’s an excellent TV series!). Whether or not the UK now chooses to completely ban Huawei may thus become a moot point because a decision in the USA has effectively stopped a mass of key businesses across the world from working with the company.

Huawei’s kit can be found all over the place in modern broadband and mobile networks. You’ll see it in Smartphones, you’ll see it in Openreach’s street cabinets and in consumer routers. Now imagine what happens when the company that supplies so much of that struggles to provide the necessary on-going and future support (replacement kit, updates, new features etc.).

Huawei has been dealt a colossal hammer blow and in turn many of those who have come to rely upon or enjoy their products will also end up suffering. We did ask Openreach and other ISPs to give us their comment on a this but, perhaps for obvious reasons (everybody is still assessing the potential damage), none responded. However the UK ISP Association (ISPA) and Government (DCMS) were kind enough to reply.

A Government Spokesperson told ISPreview.co.uk:

“The security and resilience of the UK’s telecoms networks is of paramount importance.

The Government has undertaken a thorough, evidence-based and hard-headed review of the 5G supply chain to ensure the secure and resilient roll-out of 5G. It will report in due course, and to Parliament first.

The UK is not considering any options that would put at risk our national security communications, within the UK and with our closest allies.”

A Spokesperson for the ISPA said:

“ISPA and its members are aware of the current focus on the telecoms supply chain, including the DCMS’ ongoing Telecoms Supply Chain Review. ISPs will continue to follow this dynamic area as events unfold. It is important to stress that there are a diverse range of suppliers within the UK’s fixed broadband network that underpin a competitive and interconnected market.”

You’ll note that in this article we haven’t touched on the key security fears that surround Huawei and are the trigger for all this (see our other links above for context). One reason for this is that such issues are a matter for the national security and intelligence agencies (secret), which is virtually impossible for ordinary folk to judge. We wouldn’t be so bold as to assume we know better than they.

Furthermore it seems unlikely that so many countries would be creating such a fuss if there wasn’t a serious concern. On the other hand screwing up a global supply chain so aggressively and damaging masses of consumer products in the process, many of which we all own (sometimes without even realising it), is perhaps not the right outcome. Putting it mildly.

Donald J. Trump said:

“Huawei is something that is very dangerous. You look at what they’ve done from a security standpoint, a military standpoint. Very dangerous.”

Meanwhile, short of finding a solution, Huawei will have to find a way to produce some of their products using different non-USA linked components and patents, which could make what they have to offer seem less competitive. Quietly there may be some companies, particularly a few of their arch rivals, who will be celebrating moves to neuter one of their biggest competitors.

However many of those same companies will also have to be wary about the precedent this sets, which could see a similar approach being used against their own products in the future (e.g. Apple, Tesla etc.). This is why, until now, most political leaders have been super-careful with their approach. It’s almost like there’s a trade war going on.. oh wait.

If we made a deal, I could imagine Huawei being possibly included in some form or some part of it,” said Trump.

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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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37 Responses
  1. Avatar Mike

    Just another victim of Tramps trade war.

    No doubt after China has been subdued they will try the same with the EU.

  2. Avatar Alex Haines

    How many Huawei cabinets are there in the UK and how quickly could they be replaced with HCI (or other) if supply wasn’t an issue?

    • Avatar NE555

      The Huawei cabinets perform *way* better than the ECI ones, so you really don’t want to do that.

      I suspect China will retaliate by making itself less reliant on US components, ignoring US patents where necessary. “The rest of the world minus the US” is still a very large market.

    • Avatar adslmax

      Openreach no longer installing ECI cabinets as they only do all Huawei cabinets for fttc and Nokia pods for g.fast.

    • Avatar Joe

      Never going to replace them. The cost/complexity would be crazy. Cabs are naturally going to die as fttp expands further.

    • Avatar Joe

      NE555: Doesn’t work like that. Any maker using or assisting Huawei gets caught by this. SO pretty much any company that wishes to sell into the US market, or has assets in the US market, has to comply. So H can’t just sell everywhere bar the US.

      Its a serious issue regardless as the H kit is better (in performance/capability) than that of its rivals.

    • Avatar Mike

      I hope Huawei after loosing Microsoft licensing will pursue Linux as an alternative, even at the moment it can run a lot of Windows games/programs, if they can streamline it for consumers they could really damage Microsoft.

    • Avatar NGA for all

      Alex, BT commercial was estimated to be 49k by Ofcom (not counting doubles for capacity) and a further 40,000k BDUk LA/DA cabinets. I would say c80% Huawei.

  3. Avatar Adslmax

    Does this mean all fttc cabinets make by Huawei and all g.fast pods make by Huawei will be replaced soon?

    • Avatar Joe

      No not a chance. (Fttp will kill them eventually though)

    • Avatar ProxyServer

      Huawei equipment is still used for FTTP too just so you know.

    • Avatar Joe

      Yes they use it at the head end for example (which is why there are 2 speeds as ECI are slower with their head end) but most of the ‘cabinets’ (largely fttc/G.fast) in bt’s system will go under fttp. Fttp itself doesn’t need cabinet networks to work. Its an aggregation node/splitter/manifold system.

    • Avatar CarlT

      Saves Huawei a bunch of work. The closer to the core their equipment is the easier it is to carry out all this spying they allegedly do.

  4. Avatar Meadmodj

    Expect some back peddling and more considered trade arrangements. Some Huawei kit has US components/modules and various rural network providers in the US are heavily dependent on their kit. Some companies have little Huawei while others have a very high dependency so asking providers to recover and replace would distort markets and force up costs to US subscribers. It will be the same here.

    In the UK BT is unlikely to buy much more FTTC anyway, can consolidate equipment and use recovered kit for spares. Central equipment comes from many suppliers with CISCO being their biggest and they are moving in some cases to white boxes developing software in-house.

    If there are specific security issues these can be isolated or mitigated. This latest ban is purely a trade war and may come back to bite them. Growing markets such as India will still buy Huawei and Huawei have their own OS solutions for phones etc. But our choice in Europe will become restricted short term.

    • Avatar CarlT

      Think they may have moved away from Cisco somewhat and towards Nokia.

      Fun for someone like Zen, though, they’re a Huawei shop.

    • Avatar Joe

      “If there are specific security issues these can be isolated or mitigated. This latest ban is purely a trade war and may come back to bite them.”

      (Sighs) You can’t possibly know what the intelligence services do to make that judgement. All we can know is that china has mounted a long and consistent state sponsored hacking against both foreign gov and foreign companies (to steal IP)

      Some things might be mitigatable but other can’t. Its not like you can air gap their hardware.

    • Avatar CarlT

      So if it has no wireless connectivity you can see each and every packet going in and out of it.

      If it’s encrypted you can see source and destination.

      Cisco we know have had major issues in their products that nation states have abused. Huawei’s connections with the Chinese government are questionable but the idea that Huawei kit is more dangerous than Cisco is dubious.

      If Huawei kit were such a risk it would have been out and out banned here. It hasn’t been.

      The United States has no problems with nation states subverting communications infrastructure when they’re the ones doing it.

    • Avatar Meadmodj

      If the response to Huawei security concerns was more specific (5G Core etc) then I can understand that but to ban everything a brand produces regardless of the industry, product, its use, component sources and software smacks of protectionism.

    • Avatar Joe

      The effort to monitor every packet is not realistic even ignoring you can’t traceroute complex hops/encryption which are untraceable.

      I think the argument on core is stronger. But It all depends on what the intel services know. If they have a basis to believe more basic hw has been used then wider ban may be proportionate.

    • Avatar CarlT

      What are ‘complex hops’?

    • Avatar kaptainkandikat

      a complex hop can only be performed by a giant greek hare with 15 legs.

    • Avatar Joe

      Carl: I know you know perfectly well how you can hide traffic in legitimate traffic.

    • Avatar CarlT

      Yes. It’s called tunneling though, it was the name I didn’t recognise.

      Traceroute is irrelevant to that which also threw me.

      Anyway, it’s academic. If you want to spy on traffic wholesale in this manner you use an optical tap.

  5. Avatar Gareth

    “The UK is not considering any options that would put at risk our national security communications, within the UK and with our closest allies”

    Excuse me if I don’t have a lot of faith in this statement. The UK government just staggers from one incident to the next. And god help us if Comrade Corbyn get’s in!

  6. Avatar Patrik

    “Furthermore it seems unlikely that so many countries would be creating such a fuss if there wasn’t a serious concern. ”

    Perhaps. But the “concern” may, or may not be rooted in reality.
    We do know for sure that the Big Orange Baby is an infantile, stupid conspiracy theorist.

    • Avatar Joe

      The concern about Huawei is pretty universal across the western governments – Much as it make everyone seemingly warm and fuzzy to make anti trump remarks.

    • Avatar Mike

      It’s because Huawei told the NSA to go pound sand regarding putting in spying/backdoors for them in 2014.

      I feel more comfortable withs the PRC spying on me than Western governments.

    • Avatar Joe

      If you believe that then China will be delighted

  7. Avatar dna25

    Does anyone remember what happened with ZTE? That is exactly what is happening with Huawei.

  8. Avatar Peterson Bertalinon

    it’s similar to boosted copper cables i guess.

  9. Avatar Jingle

    IMHO the reason that western government does not want Huawei in the core network is that if Huawei is in the core then the government will have to tell Huawei how the government wants to access the network traffic for the likes of gchq to surveil it. That is what the government does not want Huawei to know.

    • Avatar Joe

      Eh? How they access is not rocket science. China’s surveillance state is light years ahead of the west in scale at least.

  10. Avatar 5G Infinity

    Jingle, you are the first here to get closer to the truth.

    The second aspecty is that which Huawei has admitted, their software engineering leaves a lot to be desired and needs updating to be 2019 compliant re security, ie there are too many backdoors in Huawei’s kit, not because they put them there but because they didn’t engineer them out.

    Back to commerce and mobile networks, the US is doing quite well being 2nd globally for 5G and uses Ericsson, Nokia and Samsung kit, Europe which is 3rd in 5G could do likewise.

  11. Avatar John

    What I am sure Trump has forgotten is that China owns a large portion on the US national debt.

  12. Avatar Peter

    If “transactions” is taken to mean not only those countries which buy and install Huawai kit but transactions of data passing via networks using that kit then the US will need to disconnect its Internet infrastructure from most of the rest of the world. I don’t see that happening in the near future.

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