British ministers are expected to allow Huawei limited access to the UK’s 5G networks at the National Security Council on Tuesday (28 January), amid concerns over the firm’s links to China’s intelligence services.
While 3G made mobile internet possible and 4G allowed mobile broadband, 5G is expected to become the connectivity infrastructure that will pave the way for new product and services, such as self-driving cars or industrial robotics.
“We are going to come up with a solution (…) to have access to fantastic technology, fantastic communications, but also [to] protect our security interests and protect our key partnerships with other security powers around the world,” British prime minister Boris Johnson told reporters on Monday.
In what some have compared to a “tech Cold War”, Huawei will be only be allowed to supply non-core network equipment, having restricted access to central security systems in the UK, according to Reuters.
This action would place Britain in the middle of a geopolitical tug of war over Huawei, which the US has completely banned from its 5G networks over security risks – and is pushing its allies to do the same.
The US secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, tweeted on Sunday night that the UK has a “momentous decision” ahead on 5G while endorsing British Conservative MP Tom Tugendhat’s warning about “the real cost” of such decision.
“Sovereignty means control of data as much as land. We need to decide what we’re willing to invest in and who were willing to share our tech with,” said Tugendhat.
“The real costs will come later if we get this wrong and allow Huawei to run 5G,” he added.
Trade deal at risk?
Additionally, the UK-US free trade deal which Johnson is wanting to sign by the end of the year could also be affected by any UK defiance of US president Donald Trump’s warnings over the Chinese firm.
Three republican senators – Tom Cotton, John Cornyn and Marco Rubio – sent a letter over the weekend to Britain’s National Security Council urging Huawei to be banned from 5G development.
“The company’s actions show a clear record of predatory and problematic behaviour,” the letter said, adding it would “in the best interest of the United Kingdom, the US-UK special relationship, and the health and wellbeing of a well-functioning market for 5G technologies to exclude Huawei”.
However, the UK’s former foreign secretary, MP Jeremy Hunt, made clear the autonomy of the UK to make this decision.
If the UK decides to give the green light to Huawei’s future role in the British 5G network, “I hope there will also be some reflection in the US because we have never needed the Western alliance to be stronger than now,” he told BBC Radio 4 on Monday.
EU’s response to 5G
The European Commission is expected to unveil this month a so-called “toolbox” of security standards for 5G, which are based on a set of recommendations designed to help EU member states mitigate risks arising from 5G technology – such as espionage and sabotage.
However, this toolbox will not target any specific country or provider, leaving the door open for possible cooperation with the Chinese telecom giant Huawei.