After much speculation around Huawei’s role in the UK’s 5G network, Boris Johnson has decided to pursue a “half-way house,” allowing the Chinese firm to provide the “non-core” elements of the network while sourcing the core elements from less controversial firms like Sony or Ericsson. I’ve worked in telecoms for 12 years, and believe it is essential that Johnson secures Britain’s tech future with partnerships like these with Huawei, whilst reassuring those with concerns about Chinese involvement.
Huawei is the most sophisticated, affordable and sustainable of the 5G providers. It is, unlike some competitors, committed to the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals and has extensive energy-saving features built-in to its hardware. British consumers deserve the best tech with minimal network failures - something they have not always enjoyed in the past. Like much of the Chinese technology sector, Huawei is more future-proof than older European or Japanese providers. As a small country aiming to preserve its global standing, Britain needs friends like these.
Huawei’s detractors, led by President Trump, claim that Huawei can’t be trusted because it is a proxy of the Chinese government used for espionage, a conspiracy theory supported by the fact that the upper echelons of both the tech giant and the Chinese military and intelligence services have shared staff on occasion (the company also happens to have been founded by a Chinese army officer).
It is easy to treat any large Chinese company as an outgrowth of the country’s military-industrial complex. But in a country like China, which has the largest standing army in the world and a more centralised governance structure, some connections between one of its largest companies and its government are not equivalent to it being part of the intelligence apparatus. Rather than viewing state subsidies as a security concern, this is actually what allows Huawei to lead the world in research and development (R&D) budgets, making it an indispensable partner for the UK.
Beyond that, we have to realise that no system is 100% secure, and superpowers with state hacking teams can compromise any network - whoever it is provided by - if they dedicate enough resources to it. Our own government, for example, has extensive COMINT (Communications Intelligence) capabilities around the world, without UK companies building mobile networks.
Huawei components have been used in the hardware provided by BT (British Telecom) for fifteen years, with no evidence of this compromising national security, and a range of UK mobile networks already use Huawei components. This used to be because it was cost-effective. Now, it is also because it is simply the most sophisticated and reliable hardware, far ahead of what Nokia and Ericsson offer. Huawei has recently invested £11 billion (€13 billion) per year on R&D - three times as much as Ericsson and more than even Apple - so it is unsurprising that they are leading the market, with mobile networks reportedly lobbying the government to allow Huawei to operate.
I’ve been in the telecoms sector since 2008 and have seen too many network failures because of the Sony and Ericsson hardware currently used in the UK. With bit part adoption of Huawei, we may see those continue, as there will be inevitable compatibility issues as different manufacturers’ kit attempts to work together.
I hope that in future, the best providers are allowed to contribute more and more to our infrastructure, regardless of their nationality.
But this isn’t really about Huawei; it is about Brexit Britain’s international trade policy. Boris Johnson is attempting to create a centre ground where he can negotiate trade deals with both the US and China. This means ensuring that he doesn’t alienate either Trump or Xi Jinping.
If Johnson succeeds, Brexit Britain will be one of the few places in the world with preferential trade with the world’s two superpowers. The battle lines in the US-China trade war mean any country that is on good trade terms with both will have an almost unique competitive advantage.
But this competitive advantage will be worthless without the right infrastructure. It’s been a long time since any of us have called the internet the “information superhighway,” but we should treat 5G the same way we treated our motorways: if we were slow or hesitant to build the roads our country needs, it would paralyse our economy. Having the right roads is much more important than who builds them.
This is what we should focus on as we attempt to unlock the £15.7 billion (€18.6 billion) revenue that is said to be dependent on 5G. Data is going to get more and more exponential. Britain needs to be leading this, especially when it is outside the EU.
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