Huawei equipment will continue to be used in the UK’s 5G mobile networks for now after the government delayed a decision on whether it should be restricted or banned over concerns that the Chinese government could use it to spy on countries.
Jeremy Wright, the culture secretary, said the UK had no choice because it is still gauging the impact of US sanctions on Huawei.
Wright, unveiling the outcome of the government’s telecoms supply chain review on Monday, said it would not be “sensible, helpful or responsible” to make a final decision about Huawei’s involvement at this time. Vodafone and BT, which owns the EE network, have already launched 5G services using some equipment from Huawei in non-core parts of their networks where there is no security risk.
“The government is not yet in a position to decide what involvement Huawei should have in the provision of the UK’s 5G network,” Wright said. “Since the US government’s announcement, we have sought clarity on the extent and implications, but the position is not yet entirely clear. Until it is, we have concluded it would be wrong to make specific decisions in relation to Huawei.”
In May the US government added Huawei and 68 affiliate companies to its blacklist of businesses considered a threat to the US’s strategic interests. Under US law, companies are required to request government permission to do business with blacklisted firms. Some firms, however, pulled services immediately. Google withdrew its Android operating system from Huawei smartphones and Intel announced that it would stop delivering chips.
In April a leak from a meeting of the UK’s National Security Council, chaired by Theresa May, suggested that an agreement had been reached to block Huawei from core parts of 5G networks – a strategy already being implemented by mobile companies – but allow the technology in non-sensitive areas. The government never officially announced the decision, which cost the defence secretary Gavin Williamson his job after accusations that he was behind the leak, which would have run counter to US pressure for its allies to institute an outright ban.
Tom Watson, deputy leader of the Labour party, said that the UK was being “held hostage” by transatlantic geopolitics in the spat between the US and Huawei, and that the delay could result in the UK losing its momentum as one of the world leaders rolling out next-generation 5G services.
“The decision we take will be in the best interest of the UK,” Wright said. “We will do so as soon as possible.”
The decision on what to do about Huawei will be in the hands of the next prime minister, with Boris Johnson likely to be declared May’s successor when the winner of the Conservative party leadership contest is announced on Tuesday.
EE and Vodafone, which both use Huawei equipment, have cancelled launches of 5G Huawei handsets because of US bans on supplying components to the Chinese company.
“The future of our digital economy depends on trust in its safety and security,” Wright said. “We need to have the right measures in place to make our telecoms supply chain both safe and secure.”
The government’s review said that new legislation would be implemented to “significantly strengthen” cybersecurity in the telecoms industry. He also said that the government would support diversification among equipment suppliers. The market is dominated by Huawei, Ericsson and Nokia.
“The lack of diversity across the telecoms supply chain creates the possibility of national dependence on single suppliers, which poses a range of risks to the security and resilience of UK telecoms networks,” Wright said.
Victor Zhang, vice-president at Huawei, said: “[The review] gives us confidence that we can continue to work with network operators to roll out 5G across the UK.”