The UK has warned its telecoms companies to consider their suppliers carefully as they build 5G networks, in a move that industry figures said was targeted at Huawei, the Chinese equipment maker.
Matthew Gould, the head of digital policy at the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, and Ciaran Martin, the head of the National Cyber Security Centre, wrote to several telecoms companies warning them that their 5G supply chain may be affected by a review of the UK’s telecoms infrastructure that was launched in July.
The letter said the review aimed to ensure that Britain’s “critical national infrastructure remains resilient and secure”.
It did not mention Huawei by name, but said the “outcome of the review may lead to changes in the current rules” and that the companies “will need to take the review into consideration in any procurement decisions”.
Matthew Howett, principal analyst at Assembly Research, a research house that focuses on regulation and policy in the communications market, said: “I doubt we would have seen this if it was Nokia or Ericsson.”
Telecoms executives said the government may be pushing operators to make sure Huawei is only one of a diverse range of suppliers. But they also said it was possible that the Chinese company could be barred from the rollout of 5G in the UK, a move that would delay networks that are due to come online in 2019 and 2020.
Both the US and Australia have blocked Chinese suppliers, including Huawei, on security grounds from being used as telecoms operators begin to build and test the next generation of mobile network.
In April, the NCSC warned telecoms companies not to use China’s ZTE as a supplier because of concerns over the “long-term negative effect on the security of the UK”.
The NCSC added in July that it was concerned over “shortcomings” in Huawei’s engineering processes that expose British telecoms networks to “new risks”, including a cyber attack.
A government spokesperson played down the threat to Huawei, saying: “This is not a binary review of the country of origin of telecoms suppliers. It is about ensuring we have the right overall framework in place to ensure secure and resilient telecoms networks.”
BT, via its EE mobile arm, has launched a 5G test network using Huawei equipment in Canary Wharf in east London and Three has signed a deal with the Chinese company to supply 5G radio access equipment. Three took 18 months to select Huawei and kept the NCSC up to date with its plans throughout the process.
Mr Howett said the latest letter had arrived “too late” to be credible.
Any move to ban Huawei would mean UK networks could only realistically use 5G hardware from Nokia, Ericsson or Samsung.
Huawei is seen as a cheaper and more advanced supplier than some of their rivals, said two people with direct knowledge of network equipment procurement plans.
Huawei has been a core part of the UK telecoms supply chain since winning a contract with BT in 2005 and has expanded its footprint across Europe since. The company declined to comment.
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