China syndromeHuawei and 5G: U.K. Had Little Choice but Say Yes to Chinese – Here’s Why

By Greig Paul

Published 31 January 2020

For the time being, the British government can hardly be enjoying the fallout from its Huawei decision. To date, much focus has been on the confidentiality of communications over mobile networks, and risks of spying. A bigger issue is the need to keep the mobile phone network running. We are in an era where everything from Uber and Deliveroo to most credit card machines cannot function without it. The nightmare scenario is a hostile state-affiliated actor shutting down or damaging the mobile networks. It may have effectively been impossible for the U.K. to say no to Huawei, but the current compromise is far from ideal.

The U.K.’s decision not to ban China’s Huawei from being a supplier for its next-generation mobile network has caused ructions. US politicians are outraged, with Newt Gingrich calling it a “major defeat” for his country. In the U.K., there could be a Tory rebellion against forthcoming legislation on the matter.

In truth, the government had little choice. When you look at the background, the decision is at least understandable – and more complex than just a security issue.

Mobile phone networks comprise two parts: the core and the radio access network or RAN. The core handles security-sensitive aspects such as user authentication, routing calls, data and so on. The radio network consists of base stations and other networking equipment across mast sites nationwide.

When a user makes a call or uses the internet, a signal from their phone is picked up by a base station and is passed across the radio network to the core, where it is routed to wherever it is supposed to reach. While your call or data is encrypted, it is decrypted on the base station before being passed on - the base station can therefore see its content.

In the U.K., the 5G equipment roll-out is well underway, with more to come. It’s difficult to get figures for the outlay by the four network operators – Vodafone, O2, EE and Three – but the radio network upgrade is certainly most of what is required and is spread throughout the country.

Commercial Realities
Huawei has been banned from supplying the network core, but is to be allowed to supply a maximum of 35% of the radio network equipment. Let’s be clear here: the U.K. operators were lobbying hard for Huawei not to be excluded.

They are all using the Chinese company’s equipment to some extent in the 5G upgrades to their radio networks. Though they are still having to rethink their 5G plans because of the partial ban, they were facing huge costs and delays to rolling out 5G if the equipment had to be removed altogether.

This is partly because today’s 5G equipment piggybacks onto existing 4G base stations, and both the 4G and 5G kit tends to have to be supplied by one vendor. Banning Huawei would therefore mean replacing both 4G and 5G equipment. Vodafone alone said this would cost the company “hundreds of millions” of pounds.

Secondly, there are only three major radio suppliers: Huawei, Ericsson and Nokia (all of which manufacture in China). Excluding Huawei risked