While the world is slowly building its 5G infrastructure and looking forward to faster mobile connectivity than ever before, Britain has made a strange decision: it has decided to turn off some of the 5G devices again.
Why? Because part of what has already been provided is manufactured by Chinese technology giant Huawei and the government has concluded that the company does not want to be close to our 5G network.
What does that mean for you and your shiny new 5G phone? Is the future finally here or will it buffer for a while? Should you wait now to buy a 5G device? Read on to find out.
What has the UK government decided?
If this controversy gives you a feeling of Deja-Vu, then you are not alone. In April 201
Think of all the transmitters, routers, and other technical gubbins that actually help the Internet reach our phones. This is not specifically about Huawei phones that you saw on the store shelves.
But April 2019 was a different time, as it turns out. Not just because we were able to hug each other without social pariah, but because current Prime Minister Boris Johnson decided the opposite this week. He said no way, Huawei.
Now all existing Huawei devices must be removed by 2027, and any planned future infrastructure must instead be built with devices from companies like Nokia and Ericsson.
What will happen to the UK 5G network?
It remains unclear to what extent this will affect the introduction of 5G in the UK, although it seems almost certain that it will slow down. Instead of simply throwing new transmitters and the like, O2, EE, Vodafone and Three have to spend time converting existing devices instead.
According to Mobile UK, a lobby group in the mobile communications industry supported by the four major networks, the completion of the 5G rollout could be delayed by 18 to 24 months. But not everyone is so pessimistic.
“The timing was chosen to limit potential interference with the existing system related to the removal of Huawei components,” said John Bryson, professor of business and economic geography at the University of Birmingham.
The other complication – and somewhat cumbersome – is that Huawei is the market leader in 5G devices and is generally considered to be the manufacturer of the best and cheapest devices in the world.
The networks not only have to procure alternatives, they may also have to pay more for the privilege. It remains to be seen whether increased costs will be passed on to the consumer.
Why did the government make this decision?
Depending on how cynical you are, there are two answers. The first answer you are likely to hear from politicians defending the decision is that it is a decision driven by national security concerns. The 5G network will be an important national infrastructure, just like our electricity network or our North Sea gas. Therefore, it is probably unwise to involve a company headquartered in a potential main enemy – China – in the operation of this infrastructure.
For example, in a cyber war situation, it is easily imaginable that China might insist that Huawei insert a back door into its equipment so that it can retrieve Britain’s data. How do we know China could do that? It turns out that the United States did the same. As Edward Snowden revealed, the American National Security Agency (NSA) forced all major US technology companies to incorporate back doors into their products.
There is no evidence that Huawei’s 5G devices or devices have been used for this purpose in the past. But ultimately, Xi Jinping can rely on Huawei even if Huawei is a government-independent company, just as the President of the United States can rely on Facebook and Google.
So on one level it is perfectly reasonable to worry. Although not everyone thinks it’s a convincing argument. “Huawei is being scrutinized (at its own expense) more than any other technology company in the world,” said Professor Madeline Carr, director of the research institute for socio-technical cyber security at UCL.
“I would suggest that we would be much better off if we also had the same control on Google, Amazon, Facebook, etc.”
The second, more cynical level to understand the decision is that this decision is a direct response to Donald Trump’s aggressive stance on China. Since taking office in 2017, he has been involved in a trade war and last year imposed sanctions that prevented Huawei from using Western vendors’ chips in their phones and Google’s services in the Android version running on them.
More recently, and crucially since Theresa May made the initial decision, Trump has threatened to exclude countries that use Huawei equipment from information-sharing agreements with the United States. So if the British ghosts wanted to keep their access to one of our closest allies, they really had no choice.
In addition, there is the more practical reason why US sanctions against Huawei could make it difficult for British companies to actually get hold of Huawei devices and then maintain them.
And hey, if the security concerns are justified, then at least the Chinese government’s decision may make it a little harder to read your undoubtedly exciting WhatsApp messages.
What does Huawei say?
What does Huawei say about this? Edward Brewster, spokesman for Huawei UK, said: “This disappointing decision is bad news for anyone in the UK who owns a mobile phone. It threatens to put Britain on the digital slow lane, increase bills and deepen the digital divide. Leveling Up ‘The government is leveling down and we are asking them to reconsider.
“We remain confident that the new US restrictions would not have affected the resilience or safety of the products we ship to the UK. Unfortunately, our future has been politicized in the UK. It is about US trade policy, not security . “
The company has also announced that it will launch a detailed review of the impact of the UK government’s decision, and the company will continue to work with the UK government in the future. What exactly will result from this is currently unclear.
Wait a minute … isn’t Huawei used for 4G and wired internet?
This is the most amusing thing that is not talked about very often! Huawei’s network infrastructure is not only at the forefront of the 5G rollout, but has been a key part of the 2G, 3G and 4G networks in the UK for many years – and even many broadband landline infrastructures. So there is a possibility that exactly this article went through some Huawei devices on the way from the TechRadar servers to the device you are reading this on.
What is crucial, however, is that this week’s decision only affects 5G as of today, and the government has said that cellular companies don’t need to replace older generations of devices.
Amusingly, the Huawei kit was even used in a special 4G network for emergency services, including the police, until 2018. But BT has stopped doing this and raised similar security concerns.
So Huawei on 4G is good and Huawei on 5G is bad? As silly as that sounds, there is one important difference: if 5G reaches its full potential, it will not only do everything we do with 4G now, it will be even more critical. It will be the backbone of autonomous vehicles to intelligent power grids and other critical infrastructures that can have real consequences for life or death.
Or has the government just realized that going back and upgrading the entire 4G infrastructure would be even more expensive?
Will my new 5G Huawei phone still work?
If you recently bought a Huawei P40 Pro or you rely on a P30 Lite, don’t worry – your phone is still working fine. The judgment only applies to the technical infrastructure. Phew!
It is a relief. So just tell me: was the decision the right one?
Ultimately, the decision is a difficult compromise. On the one hand, the ban will likely limit the introduction of 5G in a very real way. And that could also have a broader economic impact. According to the Mobile UK lobby group, this could put the UK economy between 4.5 and 6.8 billion. Cost GBP. It will cost Britain in terms of productivity and competitiveness at a time when the economy is already under pressure from Covid-19 and Brexit.
But if you buy the national security case for freezing Huawei from the 5G network and are concerned about China’s increasing assertiveness internationally and in cyberspace, how can you set a price for it? You could think of it as a price worth paying.
And who knows, maybe it could pay off in the long run, too, since Western measures to limit Huawei’s dominance can lead to a willingness to support scientists so that the next generation of mobile connectivity pioneers in the democratic world.
“I don’t foresee any major problems with the introduction of 5G because a delay of a few months is not important,” says Professor Bryson. “The key will be 6G and 7G and where and by whom this technology is developed.”
So is it better to lock and protect British infrastructure or open it up a bit to get better technology faster and for less money? The frustrating answer is that there are no easy answers. But at least your phone will still work.