UK cautiously gives Huawei the nod for 5G network gear sales
But only on the edge, Chinese giant not trusted in the core
Britain will allow Huawei infrastructure kit on 5G mobile networks, according to reports, but not into the core of those networks, which is where UK spies fear Chinese backdoors exists.
The Daily Telegraph reported this morning that the National Security Council, chaired by Prime Minister Theresa May, agreed to give the Chinese company the go-ahead to sell its equipment to mobile network operators wanting to build domestic next-generation networks.
In keeping with the government's position over the last few years, no Huawei equipment will be installed in the core of any of British mobile network operator's setup. Despite this, the British green light will doubtless be greeted with a sigh of relief at Huawei – and appears to foreshadow next month's report from UK.gov's telecoms infrastructure supply review, which Huawei recently told us it was concerned about.
The National Security Council's move merely cements Britain's existing position and represents a pragmatic, official acknowledgement that Huawei 5G equipment is technically up there. However, the political dimension cannot be ignored – particularly in light of warnings from GCHQ offshoot the National Cyber Security Centre (NCSC) that Huawei's pisspoor software development practices are just as big a threat to national security as the ever-present concern of Chinese espionage backdoors.
Any Western validation of Huawei is likely to upset America, and could become a hot topic at US president Donald Trump's planned UK state visit in June. Whatever happens, Huawei is grateful for the publicity, with deputy chairman Ken Hu recently thanking the West for an "eventful" 2018.
RAN, yes; core, definitely not
Back in February, NCSC top techie Ian Levy wrote an all-encompassing explanation of 5G network architecture and UK oversight of Huawei's role in it. "No one buys telecoms services based on how secure they are," he said.
One imagines Levy finished many cups of coffee while writing the piece but it's a very good long read on how the UK reached its current position on the thorny Huawei question.
In short we're "mitigating the risk" by keeping Huawei out of the enhanced packet core, which, to oversimplify, is the part of a mobile network that routes calls and data between A and B. He who controls the core controls both the network and everything passing over the network; he who backdoors the core, or knows of a gaping hole left by blundering Huawei devs, can help himself to whatever communications he pleases.
EE, prior to its buyout by BT a couple of years ago for £12.5bn, used Huawei equipment in its 3G and 4G Evolved Packet Core. Immediately after the buyout, BT began stripping out Huawei gear, insisting to the world that this was a business move with no links to security fears. With hindsight, that seems to be a rather thin excuse. ®
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