Boris Johnson was accused of an ‘insult to our closest friends’ today as he defied Donald Trump and a huge Tory backbench revolt by declaring that Chinese tech giant Huawei will be allowed to play a role in the UK’s new 5G network.
The PM and his most senior ministers signed off limited involvement for the firm at a meeting of the National Security Council this morning.
Huawei was branded a ‘high risk vendor’, amid fears of Chinese state control over crucial infrastructure, but is being given the green light to take a limited share in ‘non-core’ parts of the scheme.
Mr Johnson has also tried to head off anger in Washington by pledging to work to foster alternative providers of 5G technology.
The move – which follows months of wrangling – comes despite furious lobbying by the US, with warnings that intelligence-sharing with our closest allies could be jeopardised. It sets the stage for a potentially stormy visit by American Secretary of State Mike Pompeo tomorrow.
Brexit Party leader Nigel Farage, a close ally of Mr Trump, said the decision was ‘an insult to our closest friends’ and a ‘sign that our establishment have been paid off by China’.
And Conservative MPs voiced deep disquiet about the step. Tom Tugendhat, former Foreign Affairs Committee chair, warned that the UK’s network was being left open to a ‘frequently malign international actor’.
A YouGov poll suggested the public is uncomfortable with the role for China, with 43 per cent saying they disagreed with it and just 14 per cent in favour.
However, senior officials from MI5, MI6, GCHQ and the National Cyber Security Centre were adamant that the risks of Huawei’s involvement can be managed.
A Whitehall source insisted the government was ‘clear-eyed’ about the challenge posed by Huawei, while the company praised the ‘evidence-based decision’ taken by ministers.
The PM has promised to deliver better broadband and the Government believes that if it were to choose another provider for 5G, it would take years to get the same result, at a higher cost
Defence Secretary Ben Wallace (left) and Chief of the Defence Staff Major General Nick Carter were among those at the NSC meeting today
Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab was also in Downing Street for the crucial discussions today
5G, the fifth generation of mobile internet connectivity, should provide much faster speeds than 4G, with experts saying wider coverage and more stable connections could revolutionise the country.
Better broadband and comms is a crucial part of the PM’s pledge to ‘level up’ the UK, and there are concerns that blocking Huawei altogether could delay the project for years and send costs spiralling.
Why is Huawei’s involvement in UK 5G controversial?
Huawei has come under scrutiny over allegations of close ties to the Chinese state.
Founder Ren Zhengfei’s past links to the military have been cited as a concern, as has China’s history of state sponsorship and surveillance.
Chinese law can also compel firms to co-operate with Chinese national intelligence work, which some critics have suggested could see Beijing require Huawei to spy on people through so-called ‘back doors’ in its telecoms equipment.
Huawei has vehemently denied the allegations of any ties with the Chinese state and says it abides by the laws of every country in which it operates.
However, the US and Australia have banned Huawei from their 5G networks over security fears.
US officials have warned British ministers that proceeding with Huawei could undermine UK-US intelligence sharing. Both Mr Trump and US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo – who is due in London for a visit tomorrow – have publicly urged the UK to thing again.
The Prime Minister heard from spy chiefs at a meeting of the NSC before the announcement was made.
The advice being issued to UK telecoms operators is that ‘high-risk vendors’ should be:
- Excluded from all safety related and safety critical networks in critical national infrastructure;
- Excluded from security critical ‘core’ functions, the sensitive part of the network;
- Excluded from sensitive geographic locations, such as nuclear sites and military bases;
- Limited to a minority presence of no more than 35 per cent in the periphery of the network, known as the access network, which connect devices and equipment to mobile phone masts.
National Cyber Security Centre chief executive Ciaran Martin said the measures would put in place ‘strong, practical and technically sound framework for digital security in the years ahead’.
Senior officials from MI5, MI6, GCHQ and the National Cyber Security Centre are believed to be advising that the risks of Huawei’s involvement can be managed. PIctured is the company’s office in Reading
Restrictions being placed by ministers on ‘high-risk’ 5G vendors
The advice being issued to UK telecoms operators is that ‘high-risk vendors’ should be:
- Excluded from all safety related and safety critical networks in critical national infrastructure
- Excluded from security critical ‘core’ functions, the sensitive part of the network
- Excluded from sensitive geographic locations, such as nuclear sites and military bases
- Limited to a minority presence of no more than 35 per cent in the periphery of the network, known as the access network, which connect devices and equipment to mobile phone masts
‘High risk vendors have never been – and never will be – in our most sensitive networks,’ he said.
‘Taken together these measures add up to a very strong framework for digital security.’
Digital Secretary Baroness Nicky Morgan said: ‘We want world-class connectivity as soon as possible but this must not be at the expense of our national security.
‘The government has reviewed the supply chain for telecoms networks and concluded today it is necessary to have tight restrictions on the presence of high risk vendors.
‘This is a UK-specific solution for UK-specific reasons and the decision deals with the challenges we face right now.
‘It not only paves the way for secure and resilient networks, with our sovereignty over data protected, but it also builds on our strategy to develop a diversity of suppliers.
‘We can now move forward and seize the huge opportunities of 21st century technology.’
Huawei vice president Victor Zhang, said: ‘Huawei is reassured by the UK government’s confirmation that we can continue working with our customers to keep the 5G roll-out on track.
‘This evidence-based decision will result in a more advanced, more secure and more cost-effective telecoms infrastructure that is fit for the future. It gives the UK access to world-leading technology and ensures a competitive market.’
‘We have supplied cutting-edge technology to telecoms operators in the UK for more than 15 years. We will build on this strong track record, supporting our customers as they invest in their 5G networks, boosting economic growth and helping the UK continue to compete globally.’
Why is Huawei so important to 5G?
Huawei has invested billions of pounds into research and development around 5G network infrastructure and, as a result, is now considered the industry leader in 5G technology.
It is also already part of the existing network infrastructure in a number of countries, including in the UK.
As a result, using one of Huawei’s rivals, and most likely alternatives – Ericsson or Nokia – for the building of 5G networks, would likely cause a delay and add cost to the introduction of widespread 5G in the UK.
In contrast, none of the four largest mobile carriers in the United States use Huawei equipment in their networks.
‘We agree a diverse vendor market and fair competition are essential for network reliability and innovation, as well as ensuring consumers have access to the best possible technology.’
Mr Tugendhat wrote on Twitter that the government’s approach represented ‘progress’.
He said it would be ‘near-impossible’ to shut Huawei out entirely, and the 35 per cent limit was welcome.
But he added: ‘If we’re to avoid finding ourselves in a similar position with 6G in the future, we will need to act now. I will be talking to ministers urgently.’
Speaking last night, Mr Johnson said the decision would be a ‘strategic win’ for Britain and consumers deserved access to ‘fantastic technology’.
He also signalled that Huawei would be barred from the ‘core’ parts of the 5G network by insisting he would never ‘jeopardise’ Britain’s security relationship with the US.
Many Tory MPs are furious at the prospect of the Chinese firm being allowed access and expressed their anger during an Urgent Question in the Commons yesterday.
Former party leader Sir Iain Duncan Smith said it was ‘utterly bizarre’ to allow in a Chinese company when ‘there is a cyber war going on at which China is arguably the single biggest participant’.
Tom Tugendhat compared to move to ‘nesting a dragon into our critical national infrastructure’ and said Britain would have to live with the decision for decades to come.
And Owen Paterson said the situation was ‘absolutely extraordinary’ and if the Government ‘know there is a risk of losing key intelligence from our closest allies, what is the overwhelming advantage of this equipment if we are looking to take this risk?’
Responding for the Government, culture minister Matt Warman said the UK would ‘never take a decision that threatens our national security or the security of our allies’.
It has been widely suggested that Mr Johnson will announce a compromise on the issue, allowing Huawei access to the ‘non-core’ elements of the network and excluding sensitive areas.
During a university visit yesterday the PM said: ‘The way forward for us clearly is to have a system that delivers for people in this country the kind of consumer benefits that they want through 5G technology… but does not in any way compromise our critical national infrastructure, our security or jeopardise our ability to work together with other intelligence powers around the world.’
By giving the green light Mr Johnson is likely to ignite a transatlantic row, which could come as soon as tomorrow with the start of the two-day visit of US secretary of state Mike Pompeo, who sources say is expected to voice his opinion on Huawei.
But UK security sources said during today’s National Security Council meeting, the chiefs planned to rubbish US claims.
One told the Mail: ‘There is unanimity of opinion on this. The security risks can be mitigated. If he (Boris) doesn’t go with it then this (5G) could be put on hold for years.’
Many Tory MPs are furious at the prospect of the Chinese firm being allowed access and expressed their anger during an Urgent Question in the Commons yesterday. Huawei promoters are pictured with one of the Chinese telecoms company’s phones
What is 5G, why do we need it… and can we trust the Chinese to build it? ROSS CLARK analyses the controversial impending tech deal with Huawei
By Ross Clark for the Daily Mail
What is 5G?
5G is the ‘fifth generation’ upgrade to mobile telecommunications. It does not consist of a single new operating system but a ‘system of systems’ that will so dramatically increase data speeds you’ll be able to download a movie in just three seconds. It will also increase internet capacity a thousand-fold when it’s fully operational.
What is the difference between 4G and 5G?
4G, like all the ‘G’s before it, is principally designed for smartphone browsing. But 5G is far more ambitious, linking together all kinds of devices, from household appliances such as fridges and washing machines to cars and electricity meters.
It is supposed to create what has been termed the ‘internet of things’, where everything we use in our day-to-day lives can be controlled remotely.
For example, you could use the 5G network to control your washing machine from the other side of the world.
It could also speed up the development of driverless cars by allowing vehicles to interact with each other.
Why do we need it?
In its strategy document for 5G roll-out, published in 2017, the Government predicted that global data traffic would grow from 3.7 exabytes (3.7 billion billion bytes of information, where one byte is equivalent to a short email) in 2015 to 30.6 exabytes in 2020.
That’s the same as if the number of passengers on London’s Tube network grew by 53 per cent every year. Without an upgrade, existing systems face being overloaded.
But there are also government policies which are dependent on 5G. If we are to reach net zero carbon emissions by 2050 – the ambitious target unveiled by outgoing Prime Minister Theresa May last summer.
For example, we will need to make much smarter use of the electricity grid.
The 5G network would allow appliances like fridges and electric car chargers to switch in and out of the grid when needed.
Are there risks?
Yes. An ‘internet of things’, where every appliance is inter-connected, provides new opportunities for hackers to interfere with electronic systems.
They could potentially seize control of vehicles and cause them to crash, or hack smart door locks to gain entry to a house.
Hostile nations could exploit 5G to try to disrupt our utility supplies, nuclear plants or airports. There are also serious privacy issues as 5G will make it easier for governments and corporations to track our lives one click at a time.
But there are also advantages – 5G networks involve far more secure data encryption.
So while there will be more appliances for hackers to target, doing so won’t be easy.
Huawei has repeatedly denied that it is an arm of the Chinese state, but as a Chinese company it is vulnerable to the control of a dictatorship with an appalling human rights record
What’s the problem with Huawei?
Whoever builds the 5G grid, or supplies equipment for it, could potentially plant bugs to allow interference with the network or enable mass surveillance by accessing data.
Huawei has repeatedly denied that it is an arm of the Chinese state, but as a Chinese company it is vulnerable to the control of a dictatorship with an appalling human rights record.
We wouldn’t allow a Chinese company to supply fighter jets for the RAF, goes the argument, and therefore we shouldn’t allow one to supply vital communications infrastructure.
Former national security adviser Lord Ricketts has dismissed the fears, however, saying: ‘I personally think we can find a solution which does allow them to have some role.’
Another serious concern is what it would mean for Britain’s role within the ‘Five Eyes’ network of security partners – the US, Australia, Canada, New Zealand and Britain – who exchange intelligence. Canada has yet to make a decision, while New Zealand initially stopped Huawei providing 5G equipment but has since said it has not imposed a complete ban.
Why is the US worried?
Donald Trump doesn’t trust Huawei to build even the smallest part of our 5G network and the US has warned that it might be reluctant to share intelligence with the UK if we employ the Chinese company – although MI5 chief Andrew Parker recently claimed that this is an unlikely consequence.
Some have argued that the US is only saying this as a protectionist ruse in its trade war with China.
But that doesn’t explain why Australia, too, has banned Huawei from building its own 5G network.
The chair of Australia’s intelligence and security committee, Andrew Hastie, claims it is a question of ‘digital sovereignty’, while his colleague James Paterson points out: ‘Successive Australian governments banned Huawei from our broadband and 5G networks with very little controversy.’
In any case, no US company currently makes 5G network equipment. Instead, the US is considering subsidising Swedish firm Ericsson and Finnish company Nokia in order to help develop its own 5G network.
In the US T-Mobile has already switched on a slower version of its 5G network, claiming it covers 200 million people.
What about our other allies?
German Chancellor Angela Merkel is reluctant to ban Huawei, fearing retaliation against German companies exporting to China.
France, too, has said it will allow Huawei to build parts of its 5G network.
Donald Trump doesn’t trust Huawei to build even the smallest part of our 5G network and the US has warned that it might be reluctant to share intelligence with the UK if we employ the Chinese company – although MI5 chief Andrew Parker recently claimed that this is an unlikely consequence
Isn’t Huawei already involved?
Under Theresa May’s premiership, the Government announced that Huawei would be allowed to provide equipment for the periphery of the 5G network, such as masts, but not the control systems at the core of the network.
These security services claim that the risk to 5G from using a Chinese supplier is manageable.
But one complication is that our existing 3G and 4G telecoms networks already contain equipment manufactured by Huawei.
In 2005, for example, BT signed a contract with Huawei that allowed it to connect customer lines to the main part of the network.
Does 5G have to include Huawei?
Our government claims that Huawei has such a technological head-start in creating 5G equipment that shunning it would delay the introduction and increase costs.
Alternative, though significantly more expensive, suppliers are ZTE, which is owned by the Chinese government, Ericsson, Nokia, Samsung (South Korean) and Viettel (owned by the Vietnamese military).
The cost to the Government of Huawei’s input into 5G is unknown, as is the time frame.
Restricting Huawei’s involvement would delay the launch of 5G by up to two years and cost the economy between £4.5billion and £6.6billion, according to a 2019 report by the telecoms industry body, Mobile UK.
What is the most likely outcome?
The Government is most likely to stick to its existing policy, which is to allow Huawei to build communication towers and other peripheral equipment for the 5G network but ban it from the core parts of the network.
There may also be measures to reduce future reliance on China by imposing a cap on Huawei’s share of the market.
What are our alternatives?
We could upgrade the existing 4G network which would give extra capacity for now.
But in the long run it would lead to Britain lagging behind in telecommunications.