Huawei’s future in U.K. 5G networks in question again

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The review follows reports last week that the U.K. is drawing up plans for a complete phase out of Huawei gear in telecom networks by 2023. (FierceWireless)

Huawei’s role in U.K. mobile networks may be in question once again, as the country’s National Cyber Security Centre (NCSC) launched a review of what impact new U.S. sanctions on the China telecom giant might have on Britain’s telecom networks.

In an emailed statement, a spokesperson for the U.K. government said: “The security and resilience of our networks is of paramount importance. Following the US announcement of additional sanctions against Huawei, the NCSC is looking carefully at any impact they could have to the UK’s networks.”

Of the review by NCSC, which is part of the U.K.’s GCHQ security and intelligence office, Huawei VP Victor Zhang commented in an emailed statement to Fierce: “Our priority remains to continue the rollout of a reliable and secure 5G networks across Britain. We are happy to discuss with NCSC any concerns they may have and hope to continue the close working relationship we have enjoyed for the last ten years.”

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This follows reports last week that U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson changed course on the earlier decision to allow Huawei a limited role supplying telecom networks, which excluded “high-risk vendors” including Huawei from U.K. operators’ core networks and placed a 35% cap on its presence in the radio access network (RAN). Instead, the U.K. now appears to be drawing up plans that would see use of Huawei gear completely phased out by 2023, according to a Telegraph report, further verified by other outlets citing unnamed British government officials.

The U.S. has campaigned for allies to bar Huawei from 5G networks over security concerns it could be forced into Chinese government-backed spying or disruption to communications networks – claims Huawei has continuously denied. U.S. lawmakers took steps this year signaling their desire for the U.K. to reverse its decision against a total ban on Huawei.

The NCSC review is focused on the impact of U.S. sanctions on U.K. telecom networks, indicating the agency is not reviewing Huawei independently of those actions.

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In an earlier statement, Zhang indicated the reports of a complete phase out came as a surprise to Huawei.  

“We’ve seen the reports from unnamed sources which simply don’t make sense. The government decided in January to approve our part in the 5G rollout, because Britain needs the best possible technologies, more choice, innovation and more suppliers, all of which means more secure and more resilient networks,” stated Zhang in emailed comments. “As a private company, 100% owned by employees, which has operated in the UK for 20 years, our priority has been to help mobile and broadband companies keep Britain connected.”

Huawei is already present in some U.K. operators’ 4G networks, including Vodafone and BT. In early 2020, BT pegged the cost of implementing NCSC’s guidance on Huawei gear at about $658 million over five years. BT later selected Ericsson to supply its 4G and 5G core going forward.

RELATED: BT picks Ericsson for 4G, 5G core, replacing Huawei

Over the last year amid U.S.- China trade tensions, pressure mounted against Huawei as the U.S. worked to keep the vendor out of next-gen networks and blacklisted it from procuring U.S.-based tech components and software. As Mobile Experts’ Joe Madden put it in a recent column for FierceWireless, with the U.S. action this month Huawei “took a punch to the gut” when the Department of Commerce restricted its access to semiconductors that use fabrication equipment and design tools from U.S. companies.

As a leading smartphone maker, the action has been seen as a major hit to Huawei, who was already struggling to launch handsets without access to Google’s propriety software, including the popular Google Play Store app.