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In Reversal, U.K. Will Ban Huawei Equipment From Its 5G Network

The British government has announced that starting next year, telecommunications companies would be banned from buying Huawei equipment for the U.K.'s 5G network. Existing Huawei equipment will need to be removed by 2027.
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The British government has announced that starting next year, telecommunications companies would be banned from buying Huawei equipment for the U.K.'s 5G network. Existing Huawei equipment will need to be removed by 2027.

Updated at 4 p.m. ET

Months after approving some limited involvement by the Chinese technology giant Huawei in constructing the U.K.'s next-generation wireless data network, British regulators reversed course Tuesday.

Beginning in January, U.K. regulators will implement a ban on telecom operators buying Huawei equipment. Existing Huawei 5G equipment will need to be removed from the U.K.'s 5G network by 2027.

The decision comes after relations between the U.K. and China declined sharply over China's actions in Hong Kong, and in the face of a potential rebellion by parliamentarians from the U.K.'s ruling Conservative party who are concerned about the security implications of Chinese involvement in the 5G rollout.

But it also follows sustained U.S. pressure on the U.K. and other European countries to exclude Huawei from 5G development. The U.S. says Huawei's equipment can be used for espionage by Beijing, and it has threatened to withhold intelligence from its allies that continued to use Huawei products.

In a statement Tuesday, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said, "With this decision, the UK joins a growing list of countries from around the world that are standing up for their national security by prohibiting the use of untrusted, high-risk vendors."

Some Huawei equipment is already integrated into various networks throughout the U.K. But it won't remain for long. "It is necessary and indeed prudent to commit to a timetable for the removal of Huawei equipment from our 5G network by 2027," Oliver Dowden, the U.K. Culture Secretary, told the House of Commons on Tuesday, adding that the requirement will be added to the Telecoms Security Bill.

"By the time of the next election, we will have implemented in law an irreversible path for the complete removal of Huawei equipment from our 5G networks," Dowden said.

The British government says it decided upon the ban in response to new U.S. sanctions imposed on Huawei in May. As part of those sanctions, companies around the world were blocked from using U.S.-made software or machinery to design Huawei equipment. That, in turn, makes it harder for Huawei to produce new products, Dowden said.

"Given the uncertainty this creates around Huawei's supply chain, the U.K. can no longer be confident it will be able to guarantee the security of future Huawei 5G equipment," Dowden said. The ban on Huawei equipment is expected to delay 5G rollout in the U.K. by at least two years, and add up to two billion pounds to the cost of the new network, he added.

In a statement, Huawei said the decision would hurt anyone in the U.K. who uses a mobile phone. "It threatens to move Britain into the digital slow lane, push up bills and deepen the digital divide," spokesperson Ed Brewster said. "Regrettably our future in the UK has become politicized," he added, asking the government to reconsider. "This is about US trade policy and not security."

In January, the U.K. announced it would allow Huawei to build part of its 5G network, despite pressure from the U.S. At the time, a senior Trump administration official told NPR the administration was disappointed by the decision.

"There is no safe option for untrusted vendors to control any part of a 5G network," the official said. "We look forward to working with the U.K. on a way forward that results in the exclusion of untrusted vendor components from 5G networks."

But when the U.S. imposed its sanctions this spring, that made it more difficult for Huawei to obtain chips and semiconductors for use in their products, said Ian Levy, the technical director for Britain's National Cyber Security Centre.

"So, it seems that Huawei's long term ability to build products using state-of-the-art technology has been severely affected," Levy said. "We think that Huawei products that are adapted to cope with the [rule] 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."

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Matthew S. Schwartz is a reporter with NPR's news desk. Before coming to NPR, Schwartz worked as a reporter for Washington, DC, member station WAMU, where he won the national Edward R. Murrow award for feature reporting in large market radio. Previously, Schwartz worked as a technology reporter covering the intricacies of Internet regulation. In a past life, Schwartz was a Washington telecom lawyer. He got his J.D. from Georgetown University Law Center, and his B.A. from the University of Michigan ("Go Blue!").