Much has been written about the decision the UK government will make on January 28, 2020 regarding the use of Chinese-made equipment from Huawei in UK mobile networks. The Chinese propaganda machine has leaked its response before readers of the free world press have had a chance to process. Huawei wants to spin the UK decision as a victory and not reveal that their options are increasingly limited. This research note offers Strand Consult’s assessment based upon in-depth policy analysis, interviews, and other intelligence on this issue since 2005.
1. The decision relates to the use of Huawei equipment in the United Kingdom. In practice, this means that the May 2018 total ban on ZTE equipment by the UK’s National Cyber Security Centre will continue.
2. The use of Huawei equipment will likely be prohibited in core networks. This means that the backbone of UK mobile networks must not contain Huawei equipment. This policy demonstrates that UK authorities recognize the risk of equipment made by entities affiliated with the Chinese government. If Chinese-made equipment was safe, Huawei equipment would not be prohibited from the network core.
3. The use of Huawei in the radio access network (RAN) will likely be limited to 30-40 percent of the active equipment. This limits the amount that Huawei can sell in the UK. It also means that UK operators will have to prioritize network upgrades in the Western part of the country where Huawei equipment is largely deployed. In practical terms, it will not be possible for an operator to use Huawei for more than 30-40 percent of the equipment and then use another Chinese or Huawei-white labeled product for the rest of the network, or a portion thereof. The goal of the policy is to limit equipment from Chinese owned and/or affiliated entities, even if it is not explicitly written.
4. The use of Huawei equipment will be expressly prohibited in sensitive geographical areas in the UK, areas selected for national security reasons. Indeed, this is already practiced in France where Huawei equipment in restricted in Toulouse, home of Airbus and the European aerospace industry. A similar policy exists for Brest where French nuclear submarines are located. Read more about the French decision.
Overall, the UK policy will send a strong signal to the rest of Europe and the world that the use of Chinese equipment poses a security risk and should be limited. The UK and French decisions were developed to protect industries, institutions, and assets of national importance in specific geographical areas.
The US model restricts its military from using Huawei and ZTE, regardless of location. Moreover, the Federal Communications Commission prohibits the use of its subsidies for the purchase of Huawei and ZTE equipment and is considering the requirement of removal of Huawei equipment for future subsidies.
Additional US policy restricts American firms from transacting business with Huawei for sensitive technologies. US telecom operators, noting the risk, have largely opted not for Huawei or ZTE, outside of a few exceptions. This is explained in Strand Consult’s research note The pressure to restrict Huawei from telecom networks is not driven by governments, but the many companies that have experienced hacking, IP theft, or espionage.
The UK new policy is a step in the right direction, and it underscores the need for greater scrutiny of technology from firms owned and/or affiliated with the Chinese government. The security risks are real and networks are key vulnerability. Indeed, scrutiny should extend beyond the network equipment to other vulnerable products and services; systems can be compromised by devices attached to networks as well as from software running over it. See Strand Consult’s research note “The debate about network security is more complex than Huawei. Look at Lenovo laptops and servers and the many other devices connected to the internet.”
Strand Consult expects that the security standards required for public safety networks will be strengthened and translated to commercial telecom networks. It is likely that some UK operators will claim that the new policy will be unduly expensive. Strand Consult examines such claims in the report ”The real cost to rip and replace Chinese equipment from telecom networks.”
Notably 2G / 3G / 4G equipment must be replaced anyway in the move toward 5G. Huawei is not the only vendor, and alternatives are price competitive. Moreover, when it comes to 5G, network rollout policy is far more consequential than the choice of equipment vendor. The view that Huawei is necessary for 5G is a myth; indeed, the US has taken a leadership position on 5G without using Huawei equipment.
Looking at the historical facts, it is not difficult to find operators which have swapped their networks with a new supplier. This need not come as a premium for shareholders. Strand Consult reviews the financial data and case studies from the major network swap it observed in 2010 – 2016.
The UK government, with Boris Johnson at the forefront, can improve the prospects for 5G in a meaningful way. In the UK, as in many other countries, it is both difficult and expensive to build mobile infrastructure. Strand Consult’s analysis show that the terms and costs associated with obtaining permits and leasing land for mobile masts and towers is artificially expensive. In the UK, operators have for many years and with limited success tried to change the terms.
In Denmark, on the other hand, Strand Consult has helped to create transparency so that authorities get the information they need to create the needed rollout policies. As a result, the total rental costs for mobile operators have fallen by over 20 percent, and it has become significantly cheaper and easier to upgrade and build existing and new mobile infrastructure. Learn more about the project here ”How to deploy 5G: Best practices for infrastructure, regulation and business models.”
Huawei will likely claim that the UK decision doesn’t hurt its prospects. This is probably to save face. The fact is that Huawei will be subject to increased restriction and will not be able to enlarge its market share. Moreover, there is no change on the ZTE ban. The UK makes clear that Chinese equipment is not allowed in the core network. Moreover, when it comes to RAN, there are also strict limitations.
If you want to know more, read Strand Consult´s research notes on China and cybersecurity or contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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