Huawei and 5G – a Liberal Democrat approach

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Starting with the Sunday Times, several media sources have reported that the Cabinet was facing a massive split on whether to allow the Chinese telecommunications firm Huawei to supply major parts of the UK’s new 5G network. The company has been prohibited from supplying critical components into the US and Australian networks and Donald Trump has reportedly urged Boris Johnson to ban Huawei in the UK. How the UK should deal with Chinese high-tech companies is not just restricted to this issue alone – and whatever decision the British cabinet takes on Tuesday is unlikely to be the final word – it goes also to the heart of the future trading relationship with China and the UK, as well as with the US.

Since the takeover of Plessey by Siemens (and their subsequent withdrawal from the telecommunications domain) and BT’s focussing on services, the UK has had no independent telecommunications equipment supplier. In the past, the country has relied on European companies, such as Ericsson, Nokia and Alcatel, or US companies such as Cisco to supply much of its infrastructure. Few concerns have been raised about potential security issues or backdoors into this equipment (although these are suspected to be present as has been reported in the past).

In the first to third generations of mobile equipment there were few technology developers outside of these companies (although Japan had some domestic suppliers for its own unique standards). The development of the fourth generation LTE standard and, more recently, the 5G standard, has changed all of that and both Chinese and South Korean suppliers have been increasingly active in developing new technology and working on standardization of the communications system.

At a conference last Friday (23 January) the Berlin-based firm, IPLYTICS showed some of their research – commissioned by the German Ministry of Economic Affairs – which showed how active Huawei and other companies from China had been in developing the technology and filing patents applications. A chart presented at the conference showed that Huawei had presented over 26,000 suggestions for technology standardization – more than any other company.

Not only were Chinese companies active in developing the technology, they were also a leading filer of patent applications as another chart showed.

This clearly shows that even if the UK chooses not to buy Huawei equipment, there will be a need to licence in the technology (and indeed Huawei has agreed to supply its intellectual property in this space for a fee to all comers). It may mean a delay in building up the infrastructure as other suppliers will need to be chosen – and this will also add to costs.

So what should we do as Liberal Democrats? It’s not going to be practical or economic to exclude Huawei from the UK’s national telecommunications infrastructure. However, as the head of GCHQ said last year at a conference reported in the Financial Times, it’s important that we need to understand the extent of China’s technological ambitions. The Huawei Cyber Security Evaluation Centre has been set up and in a recent report stated that the real issues relate to the quality of Huawei’s software and its underlying defects. That should be our real concern, rather than nebulous fears of potential backdoors that are known only to the Chinese authorities and exploited by them.

* Robert Harrison is a technology advocate based in Germany. He is the Chair of the Liberal Democrats in Europe and was recently elected to the Federal Policy Committee. He is a director and board advisor to a number of technology companies.

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19 Comments

  • “nebulous fears of potential backdoors”?! They aren’t nebulous at all, because of the nature of the PRC regime. And “Huawei has the most patents” is insignificant because most of the Huawei patents aren’t valuable. We shouldn’t let the communist PRC regime control our precious and essential telecommunications infrastructure.

  • Nonconformistradical 28th Jan '20 - 10:22am

    @B.Igic
    “We shouldn’t let the communist PRC regime control our precious and essential telecommunications infrastructure.”

    So how should we control it (without having our own telcoms supplier) and who can we trust?

  • The ‘Free Market’ selling Plessey and any other company that is of value to the country
    DOES open up ‘the backdoor’ to the country. Free market access only benefits the competition by buying UK businesses at the UK’s cost. One example is Boots, now US owned where they are closing down branches cos of ‘profitability’ NOT for the improvement of UK health concerns. Some businesses should remain in UK hands for the countries benefit. The development of a high tech UK business which is NOT allowed to be sold off should materialise.

  • It’s hard to be alarmed by this.

    If anyone is serious about the security of infrastructure they do not allow it to be connected to the internet.

    The security horse bolted years ago.

  • Rob Harrison 28th Jan '20 - 11:43am

    I used the term “backdoors” also in the context of the US based equipment suppliers in which it is acknowledged that there are (or at least have been) backdoors that have been exploited in the past.

    I am not certain how B.Igic concludes that Huawei’s patents are not valuable. Their applications cover a lot of the 5G infrastructure as standardised by the European Telecommunications Standards Institute and its counterparts in other continents.

  • I’m afraid this article has all the right information, but then ignores the important bit and rapidly jumps to the wrong conclusion.

    The simple question that needs to be answered is “Do you trust the PRC?” A Lib Dem only needs to look at the Sino-British Joint Declaration on the future of Hong Kong and how China has behaved there since to know the answer to that.

    Believing “that we need to understand the extent of China’s technological ambitions,” is somehow relevant given the answer to the first question, is to totally miss the point.

  • The Chinese corporation’s gear uses American made chips and software. If MI5 looked at it and said there is no security risk I can’t see how there could be.
    Competence on the other hand is another matter. Chinese firms are notoriously slap dash and you get what you pay for , which is a cut price service. Britain has a long track record of looking at the best in the world, then buying the cheapest, as we did with the unreliable Docklands Light Railway.
    But far from the UK getting any sort of independence from Brexit, it is already clear that we need to bend over further backwards to get any chance of dealing with these people on trade, otherwise forget it. Inside the EU we were in the strongest, largest, richest trade block with the best negotiators in the world

  • George Burn 28th Jan '20 - 1:27pm

    The authoritarian nature of the PRC government requires us to assess the security risks the UK would run if it were to allow more Huawei produced kit into our IT infrastructure. If the kit is “dumb” (antennas etc), I can see why the security experts say the risks are negligible and manageable. The “smarter” the kit, the more we need to do to limit our exposure to the Chinese regime via Huawei.

    The Americans don’t recognise that distinction, they say Huawei and Beijing can’t be trusted at any level. Not only is that not very convincing on its face, it is also obvious that the US has its own agenda on China, and is looking to leverage its security relationships to advance that agenda. The newly isolated and decoupled UK is a priority target for them.

    If we were to buy into the American view of this issue, why would we stop at excluding Chinese companies on this particular area of infrastructure? How could we trust buying anything electronic produced in China? Like the phone I’m using right now, for example. Or my laptop. Do I need to check where my WiFi router was made?

    I fully accept that the Chinese Government is appalling and a threat, and that Chinese companies probably are beholden to their Government, but if we only buy dumb 5G kit from Huawei (which is what the May Government limited itself to do), what is the issue? Other than annoying Donald Trump?

  • Paul Barker 28th Jan '20 - 1:49pm

    We have just seen everybody repeating the “Never Again” mantra in relation to the Holocaust commemorations.
    The Chinese Government has built a chain of Concentration Camps for its Muslim citizens; where are the howls of condemnation ? Why are we not calling for a phased Boycott of Chinese Goods & Services ?

  • Rob Harrison 28th Jan '20 - 1:50pm

    John’s point about many Chinese firms being slap dash is exactly the one that the Huawei Cyber Security Evaluation Centre made in their linked report. I think that this is the biggest concern about using Huawei equipment – will is be reliable and robust? With respect, the equipment is certainly not dumb, as George Burn suggests. Antennas are incredibly complex items of equipment these days.

    George makes a very pertinent point – if you exclude one Chinese company for one particular area of infrastructure, then why should we stop at that. There’s been no discussion about ZTE or some of the other Chinese telecom companies who also supply equipment and, more importantly, are actively developing new technology which they patent.

  • Rob Harrison 28th Jan '20 - 4:46pm

    @Paul Barker : we need to continue to call out the appalling treatment of Muslim citizens in China (and also other religious minorities). But refusing Huawei access to the UK market is not going to help. Finding out what Huawei might be doing to enable the concentration camps will also be a worthwhile exercise. Calling for a boycott of goods and services will in my opinion achieve nothing.
    We are going in a direction in which the World Wide Web is being divided up into mini domains and we should not be encouraging this, but supporting the opening of the web. Many in China, particularly Young Chinese, are desperate for access to information from the US and Europe – let‘s encourage that access and not put up our own barriers.

  • John Roffey 28th Jan '20 - 4:55pm

    Since no one has raised the issue of the health risks of 5G – perhaps the question of whether or not it should be introduced at all needs addressing first. The advantages are presently concerned with speed – an hour TV program can be downloaded in 7 seconds with 5G whereas just 3% of the program would be downloaded in that time with 4G. 33 x 7 = 231secs – just less than 4 mins.

    Is this benefit [and similar] really worth these health risks?

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=H_f9gpg4t6c

    There are plenty of other YouTube videos – not from RT highlighting these health issues.

  • Rob Harrison 28th Jan '20 - 6:38pm

    @John Roffey You’ve highlighted a video from RussiaToday which includes a number of arguments about 5G which have been shown to be unproven. For example, the argument that mobiles are a threat to the user’s DNA has been shown by Oxford Uni to be incorrect: https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2018/jul/21/mobile-phones-are-not-a-health-hazard
    We do know that there are health hazards attached to very high power microwave radiation – but the amount of energy used in the 5G applications is extremely small.
    The other major statement made by the Report in RT is that somehow 5G radiation will be omnipresent and will invade our lives. This is not the case. Our houses, our homes, our environment is already exposed to massive amounts of both natural radiation and artificial radiation. There has been no massive rise in radiation attributable to this additional exposure since the 1980s.

  • John Roffey 28th Jan '20 - 7:14pm

    Who do you believe?

  • Yousuf Farah 28th Jan '20 - 11:00pm

    Since the UK is leaving the EU, decoupling and isolating, as someone else eloquently put it in this thread, would it not make sense to try and look for any opportunity to better ourselves? The US already do dealings with Huawei, they already have 5G, but yet they don’t offer an alternative, they just expect the UK to fall in line with it’s commands. Huawei supercomputers are made by Americans, and someone has already said in the comments that Huawei’s gear uses American chips and software, seems like a strong scent of hypocrisy is coming from across the pond. But really, what America is really worried about is competition, all they want is a clear deck, but what they don’t realise is that competition can actually benefit Western tech suppliers to combat Huawei. America seems to always want a lot from the UK, so much for a special relationship, Harry Dunn comes to mind.

    I don’t see a problem with this, so long as their presence here can be curbed and they can be marshalled, so that if there is any threat, it can be dealt with, then why not let them in?

  • Doug Chisholm 29th Jan '20 - 8:12am

    I think David Davis said it – Before WW2 Germany buily excellent submarines but we didnt buy them. As an aside it is incredible that the democratic nations have allegeddly fallen so far behind. Perhaps they just being undercut. I work in the semiconductor industry and can assure you that China thrives on IP theft an cheap second sourcing. Isnt there a saying that the price of freedom is vigilance ?

  • Lorenzo Cherin 29th Jan '20 - 1:32pm

    Liberalism is for freedom.

    The Chinese government is the opposite.

    Conservatism is for stability.

    The decision by this government is the opposite.

    Why not try Bevan on Socialism? The language of priorities.

    The fact 5G is even a technology we are developing is proof we are as a human race lacking any sense of what is or ought to be our immediate or ongoing concerns.

    We as Liberals should be alarmed at business on this scale with a terrible power.

    Conservatives ought to be too, adding lack of conserving anything, the main focus of the Conservatives for a generation.

    Socialists are too often like the Chinese Communists, big government in charge, their focus.

    We in the moderate terrain are the radicals. We who think 5G nonsense eve more so.

  • Lorenzo Cherin – so, you are advocating for luddism, which is just another form of rural toryism???

  • @ Thomas “luddism, which is just another form of rural toryism???” No it’s not.

    It was an understandable incoherent outbreak of anger and frustration by skilled craftsmen who saw their entire family life and existence threatened (especially in West Yorkshire and Nottingham). It evolved into Peterloo, Methodism, Chartism and, believe it or not, support for Liberalism.

    It was put down with severe ferocity by “rural Toryism”.

    Try reading E.P. Thompson and Byron’s speech in the House of Lords.

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