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Chinese telecoms firm Huawei will be banned from installing any new equipment to the UK’s 5G phone network from the end of this year and have all its kit stripped out by 2027, the government has announced.
Just six months after Boris Johnson granted a limited role for the company in Britain, culture secretary Oliver Dowden confirmed a U-turn that will mean a two-year delay to the expected full rollout of the next generation mobile technology.
Under a new Telecom Security Bill it will be illegal for any company in the UK to install any new Huawei equipment after December 31 this year. Its existing kit will have to be fully removed by 2027.
The current rollout date for UK 5G, scheduled for 2025, will be delayed at a cost of “hundreds of millions of pounds”, Dowden told MPs in a Commons statement.
Tory MPs may fear that the seven years given to fully strip out the Chinese company is too long, but it is understood that the sheer complexity of the system means it is impossible to do so sooner without blackout risks for consumers.
Dowden said that “disruption and blackouts..was one of the reasons for the timetable we have set out”. “Put bluntly, the shorter the timetable for the removal the higher the risk of that happening,” he said.
There may be controversy too over a separate decision to give UK telecoms firms a full two years to continue stockpiling and using Huawei technology for full-fibre broadband.
With Nokia the only other infrastructure provider for broadband in the British marketplace, the National Cyber Security Centre (NCSC) advised that a delay was needed to allow a switch away from Huawei.
Ian Levy, the agency’s technical director, said in a blog: “We think that Huawei products that are adapted to cope with the [sanctions] 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 within our mitigation strategy.”
The National Security Council approved the change on Tuesday after intelligence officials warned that Donald Trump’s latest sanctions against Huawei made it impossible to retain its equipment without risks to national security.
The government believes that by the time of the next election in 2024 the UK will be on an “irreversible path” towards removing all the Chinese company’s kit from 5g infrastructure.
However, Huawei will be allowed to keep its technology in 2G, 3G and 4G mobile phone technology as that does not pose a security risk.
Ed Brewster, spokesman for Huawei, said the move was “bad news for anyone in the UK with a mobile phone” and threatened to “move Britain into the digital slow lane, push up bills and deepen the digital divide”.
“Regrettably our future in the UK has become politicised, this is about US trade policy and not security.”
US officials have claimed China could use the company as a gateway to “spy, steal or attack” the UK - a claim vigorously denied by Huawei.
Following a bitter battle within his party, Boris Johnson announced in January that Huawei would be kept out of the sensitive core of the 5G network and limited to 35% market share of its other parts.
But Trump’s new sanctions imposed in May, which ban Huawei from buying all US semi computer chips, were viewed as a “game changer”.
The result is that any new chips used by the company would be different from those previously deemed to be a manageable risk to the UK.
Boris Johnson pledged in the Tory manifesto in 2019 to deliver full fibre broadband by 2025 and it is understood that deadline will remain unaffected.
Dowden told MPs: “Following US sanctions against Huawei and updated technical advice from our cyber experts, the government has decided it is necessary to ban Huawei from our 5G networks.
“No new kit is to be added from January 2021, and UK 5G networks will be Huawei free by the end of 2027. This decisive move provides the industry with the clarity and certainty it needs to get on with delivering 5G across the UK.
“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.”
Former Tory leader Iain Duncan Smith said that five years would be a better timetable for the total removal of Huawei technology and asked why 3G and 4G would be unaffected by the changes.
Tory backbencher Bob Seely said the move did signal “the long goodbye of Huawei” from the UK but “seven years is a very long time in politics and it would be better to be done sooner”.
Former defence minister Tobias Ellwood warned the UK had to work with other Western nations to prepare for any retaliation by Beijing.
Shadow digital, science and technology minister Chi Onwurah said the government’s “approach to our 5G capability, Huawei and our national security has been incomprehensibly negligent”.
The NCSC said in a statement that the changes do not directly affect people who use Huawei smartphones, laptops and tablets, but it warned that the US sanctions will have a major impact on new purchases.
“From now on, new Huawei devices won’t be able to use Google applications or services; for example: the Play Store, Maps, YouTube or Google Assistant,” it said.
BT’s EE mobile network features Huawei in the core of its 4G and 5G networks, but the firm is in the process of replacing it with Ericsson’s products, and has promised to do so by the end of 2023.