The recent U.K. ban on the use of Huawei technology in its 5G wireless network is likely as much about salvaging the deteriorating U.S.-U.K. Sino relationship and restoring trade normalcy as it is about security.
“There are clearly legitimate security concerns around Huawei, particularly given that as a result of the trade ban, equipment will now be built more and more from Chinese components,” said Dan Ridsdale, global head of TMT for Edison Group. “However, it would be clearly naive to think that the decision was based purely on security concerns, with political and trade interest parties also at play.”
Much to the chagrin of U.S. government officials, citing concerns that China might try to leverage its relationship to the equipment provider to spy on U.S. companies and engage in other cyberespionage activities, the U.K. had stood resolute in its inclusion of Huawei technology in its 5G strategy. That decision “to allow Huawei to be deployed in the core left a more extensive ban as a bargaining chip on the table in trade negotiations,” Risdale explained.
Still, the move drew praise from Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., the co-chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, who released a statement saying that he remained hopeful “that the Trump Administration will begin to engage multilaterally with like-minded allies on promoting secure and competitively priced alternatives to Huawei equipment.”
But removing Huawei from play could slow 5G rollout in the U.K. without initially providing any obvious security safeguards. “While any benefits from the improved security may never become apparent, the rollout of 5G networks in the U.K. will inevitably be slower and more expensive as a result of the decision, with the number of viable 5G network equipment vendors available to U.K. operators now reduced to two,” said Risdale. “With the majority of EU countries expected to allow Huawei to be deployed in a limited fashion, meaning that the U.K.’s mobile infrastructure may well fall behind that of the EU – at least in terms of capability if not security.
The rift may very well deepen “with IP rights looking like an area which is particularly prone for a flare up,” he said.
Considering that Huawei has filed the most 5G patent applications – with more than 1,300 approved, according to IPlytics – the company “will inevitably look to put its patent portfolio to work,” said Risdale. “This could be for direct monetization or potentially to slow down 5G deployments buying more time to push for a change in policy.”
Recent events such as bans on TikTok stemming from claims that it might share information with China, have cast a harsh light on technology coming from the country and heightened concerns that it might “be serving a more sinister purpose,” said Brad Hoffman, CISO, head of security strategy, at Netenrich. TikTok as well as other incidents offer “examples of clear privacy and security violations, combined with nation-state activity and cybercrime activity originating from China, that is causing additional scrutiny.”
Geopolitical considerations also highlight “the notion that China will use all resources available to meet their goals. It would be naive of us to think that cyber security and technology at large would be excluded from the arsenal,” Hoffman said.