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Huawei believes it can supply 5G kit to UK despite US sanctions

  • Chinese telecom firm stockpiles 500,000 pieces of equipment but fears wider ban

Dan Sabbagh Defence and security editor, The Guardian (UK), Published Sat 11 Jul 2020

A Huawei shop in Beijing

A Huawei shop in Beijing. Conservative rebel MPs said the company represents a national security risk. Photograph: Nicolas Asfouri/AFP/Getty Images

Huawei believes it can supply 5G hardware unaffected by White House sanctions to the UK for the next five years, sidestepping the expected conclusion of an emergency review on Tuesday next week.

The company has stockpiled 500,000 pieces of kit but fears a wider ban on its equipment will be unveiled to placate Conservative rebel MPs, who say the Chinese supplier represents a national security risk.

Downing Street indicated on Friday it was “very likely” that the culture secretary, Oliver Dowden, would make a statement to parliament on Tuesday after a technical review of the sanctions by the National Cyber Security Centre (NCSC).

The US ban prevents Huawei from using American microchips or any chips designed with American software. The NCSC is expected to conclude that Huawei kit will no longer be secure because it will have to rely on untested chips.

The Chinese company said it could divert 20,000 of its existing reserve for use in the UK, but is unclear whether there would be any point in doing so. “We can help, but why should we lean in when we are getting screwed,” one insider said.

Any material concession to Huawei would enrage rebel Tories. They want Dowden to ban new Huawei kit from the end of this year and insist existing kit be ripped out by 2023 or shortly thereafter. Leaks have suggested the government would consider working towards a date of 2029.

“If Huawei thinks that any sweetheart deal that sees another five years of their kit installed can pass through parliament, they’re wildly mistaken,” said a source close to the rebel group.

BT and Vodafone this week warned that ripping out Huawei by 2023 could lead to signal blackouts. They also said the cost to the two companies would reach several billion pounds and could be passed on to consumers. O2, the other leading mobile phone group, does not use much Huawei equipment.

While the scope of the review is technical, the row has increasingly become geopolitical. This week Huawei’s UK chairman, Lord Browne, the former chief executive of BP, said the company had “become a football between the United States and China”.

Donald Trump’s White House has pressed hard for the UK to abandon Huawei, which has supplied telephone equipment to BT and Vodafone since the middle of the last decade and is the market leader in 5G.

Huawei says it is a private company independent of the Chinese state. Britain’s spy agencies have said there are no hidden backdoors in its equipment, partly because they have been able to monitor its software at a special evaluation centre located in Banbury, Oxfordshire.

In January, Boris Johnson announced that Huawei would be capped at 35% of 5G and would be allowed to supply only non-core parts of the network.

Dowden has previously said he would delay the planned telecoms bill until after the summer recess if he announced a policy change next week. That has prompted speculation that the government intends to delay a vote on its plans until after the US elections in November. This claim was denied by Downing Street.

Labour accused the government of agonising over the decision. The shadow culture and digital secretary, Jo Stevens, said: “The Tories have dithered over this for years, lurching from review to review with no concrete action. In the meantime they have failed to invest in homegrown alternatives.”

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