Huawei UK 5G ban ‘should happen sooner’

Huawei logo on a smartphone

Image copyright
Getty Images

The government should remove Chinese firm Huawei from the UK’s 5G network by 2025 instead of 2027, as planned, ex-Tory leader Iain Duncan Smith has said.

The telecoms company is to be banned from setting up 5G, but will remain involved in 3G and 4G.

Mr Duncan Smith said allowing Huawei to work on these also posed a continued “risk” to national security.

But the government said it would “ensure” the UK’s communications system was as “secure as it possibly can be”.

Huawei, which has repeatedly said it would not cause harm to any country, predicted the UK would now be pushed “into the digital slow lane”, with higher bills for consumers.

In January, ministers announced the company would be kept out of the sensitive core of the 5G network – including national intelligence – but be allowed involvement in up to 35% of other parts.

This prompted criticism from backbench Conservative MPs, marshalled by Mr Duncan Smith, who called Huawei an arm of the Chinese Communist Party and a risk to the UK.

The US, with which the UK shares much of its intelligence, also applied diplomatic pressure for a rethink.

Under its revised plans, the government says Huawei will not be allowed to install any equipment for the 5G network from next year – and its existing equipment will be removed by 2027.

But Mr Duncan Smith told the House of Commons that the head of BT thought the removal could happen two years earlier.

He said: “I do think he [Mr Dowden] can do it quicker than this… There’s no reason why it can’t [happen].”

The government thought it had made its decision on Huawei earlier this year. It wanted to get on with delivering faster internet and thought Huawei was best placed to ensure speedy upgrades.

But since then the US has continued to apply pressure – with its decision to impose new sanctions on China a crucial factor.

Meanwhile, dozens of Tory backbenchers continued their opposition – and refused to fall in line. They will be scrutinising the detail of today’s announcement. As well as a ban on Huawei’s future involvement, many want current infrastructure run by the company removed.

However, ministers have to balance this with their commitments on faster broadband speeds. Telecoms chiefs have warned if things happen too fast without proper alternatives, we could see a reduction in some services and even blackouts.

Mr Duncan Smith added that there were “contradictions” in banning Huawei from 5G but not 3G and 4G, which would undergo “software upgrades”by Huawei “for the next decade”.

“So, if they’re a risk to us in 5G, why are they not a risk to us generally?” he asked.

Culture Secretary Oliver Dowden replied: “The reality of the 5G network is that it is fundamentally different and it’s a recognition of that fundamental difference that we are imposing these rules for 5G.

“Of course, over time… 5G will be replaced by 6G, and in all of that Huawei will be absent.”

He also said: “There is of course no such thing as a perfectly secure network, but the responsibility of the government is to ensure that it is as secure as it possibly can be.”

For Labour, shadow culture secretary Chi Onwurah said the government had been “incomprehensibly negligent” and had “refused to face reality” over Huawei.

She asked whether UK security policy was “being led by the US” and said ministers had no “sustainable plan for the digital economy”.

SNP culture spokesman John Nicolson said it had been wrong in the first place to allow Huawei near the “nervous system” of the UK’s telecoms network.

And Labour MP Chris Bryant told the Commons there was “unity” among MPs in opposition to the company’s further involvement in 5G, saying: “I wish the government would listen to its own backbenchers.”

The US has claimed China could use Huawei to “spy, steal or attack” the UK – but the company denies this and its founder has said he would rather shut the company down than do anything to damage its clients.

Sanctions imposed in May by Washington have limited China’s access to US chip technology, which prompted the UK’s National Cyber Security Centre to launch a review of the use of Huawei.