In the limelight: March 2020

March 5, 2020

After authorising Chinese technology conglomerate Huawei’s involvement in building the UK’s new 5G mobile network, Prime Minister Boris Johnson found himself caught in the crosshairs of domestic policymakers and American President Donald Trump. But could Britain really afford to ban Huawei from the process, and was the Prime Minister’s decision instead an acknowledgement that a necessary evil is sometimes needed to engender change? Steven Hugill finds out more

If, as the old adage goes, a week is a long time in politics, a month must feel like an entire season.

Just ask Boris Johnson.

From lifting the handbrake on Britain’s formal EU departure, to rubber-stamping HS2 and orchestrating a Cabinet cull that turned Number 10 Downing Street’s famous black door into a political turnstile, the four weeks from late January to mid-February were nothing if not eventful.

Mr Johnson’s diary was unrelenting, and it became further demanding still with the need to make a crucial intervention around the future of Britain’s 5G mobile network.

Promising users faster and more comprehensive internet connectivity, the much-vaunted upgrade has long been recognised as a key component in fostering new innovation across the UK’s business environment by supporting developments around the Internet of Things and cloud computing.

But – like much in politics – there was a twist. In this case, it came in the form of technology leviathan Huawei and its apparent links to the ruling elite of its native China.

British MPs and their counterparts on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean – including US President Donald Trump and deputy Mike Pence – urged the Prime Minister to block the operator on the grounds it poses a significant security risk.

That Mr Johnson disregarded their call for an outright ban says a great deal about a Prime Minister keen to stamp his authority on a postBrexit landscape.

However, that he approved Huawei’s involvement with a number of caveats – which include prohibiting the company from supplying kit to sensitive parts of the network and barring it from areas near military bases and nuclear sites – speaks even more of a man caught in a Catch-22 situation.

Britain needs faster mobile connections and the Prime Minister knows Huawei can help.

It is a point acknowledged by Geoff Burns, head of sales at Sunderland-based telecoms operator Nice Network.

“While the UK could still technically create its own 5G infrastructure without the support of Huawei, it would cost the taxpayer tens of billions of pounds and would add further delay to the rollout of 5G,” says Geoff.

“The UK has already been slow to embrace 5G and if we’re to remain competitive on the global stage then we can ill-afford to let the rollout of the technology hit any more snags.

“We’ve already seen global industries such as manufacturing, agriculture and logistics being transformed by the introduction of 5G.

“With the added complexities and challenges we could face post-Brexit, we must ensure we’re competing with the best possible 5G provision – Huawei will be central to this,” continues Geoff.

“The telecoms giant has played a huge role in shaping the industry, supporting the rollout of the UK’s 2G, 3G and 4G mobile network development, by supplying antennas, routers and switches used by BT and Vodafone to build out their mobile networks.

“Balancing the clear commercial and technical advantages of engaging Huawei with security is key, and the consensus among industry leaders is that this is an appropriate solution.”

The need to find a compromise is reiterated by Professor Jason Whalley, from Northumbria University’s Business School, who describes the UK as being “caught between a rock and a hard place.”

Acknowledging that excluding Huawei from the 5G rollout would have brought delays to the network’s growth, he says the move will present a new marketplace dynamic.

“The decision will impact on operators – BT has stated that restricting the use of Huawei’s equipment in its mobile and fixed networks will cost it £500 million over five years,” he says.

“Perhaps more significantly, it effectively means the choice of large equipment vendor is now reduced to just Ericsson and Nokia. There is no equivalent British vendor, and suggestions by the Prime Minister that one could be created in the next couple of years are far-fetched.

“There are concerns about Huawei but removing it entirely from the country’s infrastructure would be costly.

“Removing its equipment would have also delayed the rollout of 5G, negatively impacting on the development of the Internet of Things and the provision of a new generation of mobile services.

“The Government is betting these potential benefits outweigh the costs of its decision, but this is something that will only emerge with time.”

Samuel Harrison, managing director of Middlesbrough-based animation, augmented reality and virtual reality provider Animmersion, says Huawei’s inclusion reflects a lack of necessary focus on connectivity in previous years.

However, while the Chinese operator’s involvement may point to preceding faults, he believes 5G’s promise as a growth catalyst is abundantly clear, adding it can be “rocket fuel” for developments across immersive technology.

“That it seems we may have to engage with Huawei for these critical networks demonstrates the underinvestment in the UK’s and Europe’s own capabilities,” says Samuel, who is also co-founder of Animmersion.

“That is disappointing based on the impact and importance 5G will have on vast areas of commercial and consumer activity.

“5G will underpin the application of nextgeneration immersive technologies, which will change the ways we use and interact with data.

“Businesses are now starting to understand how immersive technology such as virtual reality can unlock solutions that can be applied to improve their operations, and 5G will be rocket fuel to take this to the next level,” continues Samuel.

“With the advent of 5G, more data can be transmitted almost instantly, which will allow the processing to be handled in the cloud and visuals to be streamed directly, rather than relying on costly hardware on users’ premises.

“This has the potential to enhance security, as visualisations can be streamed, rather than sending and storing sensitive data sets for storage and processing on users’ machines.

“It also enables businesses to stay at the cutting-edge as they buy into technology at a service level, rather than investing in graphics hardware that quickly becomes redundant as the technology iterates.”

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