UK to ban new Huawei equipment due to security risks

The U.K. said in January that it might allow Huawei to help build the country's 5G network

LONDON—The British government said it would bar telecom companies from purchasing new equipment made by China's Huawei Technologies Co. and gave them until 2027 to remove its technology from their 5G networks, a sharp about-face that marks a significant victory for the U.S.

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The decision follows new U.S. restrictions on the sale of Huawei computer chips and comes amid a broader deterioration of relations between the U.K. and China, most recently relating to China's imposition of a new security law over the former British colony of Hong Kong.

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Oliver Dowden, the British minister in charge of digital issues, told the House of Commons on Tuesday that new purchases of Huawei 5G equipment would be barred from the end of this year and that the Chinese company’s gear would have to be stripped out of British networks by 2027. As recently as January, the U.K. said it could mitigate the risk of Huawei equipment in its networks.

Mobile network phone masts are visible in front of St Paul's Cathedral in the City of London, Jan. 28, 2020. (AP Photo/Alastair Grant)

The U.K is launching a consultation on when to ban the purchase of Huawei kit from the country's fiber optic network. This will be followed by a transition period that isn't expected to exceed two years.

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The move comes as U.S. pressure builds on European governments to shut Huawei out of their 5G networks. Senior U.S. officials, led by U.S. national security adviser, Robert O’Brien, and his counterparts from Italy, Germany, France and the U.K. are meeting in Paris this week.

The Trump administration ratcheted up its pressure on Huawei in May, using export rules to bar global suppliers from selling the company’s chips produced using U.S. tools. British officials said this raised questions about the quality of Huawei kit in the future.

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U.S. officials have long said Beijing could direct Huawei to sabotage or spy through 5G networks, which promise to provide superfast wireless speeds for coming technologies such as self-driving cars. Huawei and the Chinese government reject the charges.

In this photo taken March 8, 2020, residents wearing masks against the coronavirus walk past a Huawei advertisement in Beijing. (AP Photo/Ng Han Guan)

Victor Zhang, head of Huawei’s U.K. operations, said in June that the company had a proven record and was happy to work with the British government regarding “any concerns they may have and to continue the working relationship we have had for the last 10 years.” Huawei has secured a significant U.K. market share, resulting from telecom providers’ views of the company’s equipment as high-quality and inexpensive.

British relations with China have rapidly soured since Prime Minister Boris Johnson gave Huawei the green light to build part of its 5G network in January this year. At the time, government officials said the risks related to Huawei could be mitigated, with the equipment maker permitted to only have a maximum 35% market share of the 5G network and to be excluded from its “core,” where much of the information on the network is processed.

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The U.K.’s National Cyber Security Centre, part of the nation’s GCHQ electronic intelligence agency, launched a new review of Huawei triggered by the U.S. export bans in May. The swift policy reversal played out during the coronavirus pandemic.

The decision is expected to fuel broader discussions about how the U.K., U.S. and other allies can wean themselves off Chinese technology and production, an issue underscored in recent months by reliance on Chinese-made medical supplies for hospitals and caregivers.

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