UK telecoms industry gives guarded welcome to Telecommunications Bill proposal

New legislation aims to provide a basis to strengthen the security framework for technology used in 5G and full fibre networks, including the electronic equipment and software at phone mast sites and in telephone exchanges

Joe O’Halloran
  • Joe O’Halloran, Computer Weekly

Just when anyone would be forgiven for thinking the furore had ended regarding the need for telcos to remove the technology belonging to so called “at-risk” suppliers from their 5G infrastructures, think again, as new UK government legislation to further reinforce this degree opens up new wounds.

The UK government’s Telecommunications (Security) Bill, to be introduced on 24 November, aims to give the government unprecedented new powers to, in its words, boost the security standards of the UK’s telecoms networks and remove the threat of high-risk suppliers, principally Huawei.

It is also said to provide a basis to strengthen the security framework for technology used in 5G and full-fibre networks, including the electronic equipment and software at phone mast sites and in telephone exchanges which handle internet traffic and telephone calls.

The background of the new legislation is the decision in July 2020 by the UK government to commit to a timetable for the removal of Huawei equipment from the country’s growing 5G communications infrastructure by 2027 – effectively a huge U-turn to the decision it only took in January 2020 to restrict Huawei’s presence to just the radio access network element of 5G setups.

The call was made after the UK’s National Cyber Security Centre (NCSC) reviewed the consequences of the decision by the US on 15 May to extend its restrictions on the sale of hardware and software to so-called “high-risk” suppliers such as Huawei, leading to Huawei being unable to purchase equipment from longstanding suppliers.

The NCSC noted that such a move created uncertainly around the Huawei supply chain, and that the UK could no longer be confident that it would be able to guarantee the security of future Huawei 5G equipment.

To that end, the UK government said it was making it illegal for UK telcos to purchase Huawei 5G network equipment from the end of 2020. Yet, as soon as it made its decision, the UK government conceded that there would be a price to pay, calculated by the UK’s mobile operators to be running into the billions.

New powers

The new bill will also provide the government with new powers to issue directions to public telecoms providers regarding this decision to manage the potential of high-risk suppliers.

While so-called high-risk suppliers are already banned from the most sensitive “core” parts of the network, the bill will allow the government to impose further controls on telecoms providers’ use of goods, services or facilities supplied by such suppliers.

Indeed, companies deemed to have fallen short of the new duties, or following directions on the use of high-risk suppliers, could face heavy fines of up to 10% of turnover or, in the case of a continuing contravention, £100,000 per day. Ofcom will be given the duty of monitoring and assessing the security of telecoms providers.

Yet somewhat controversially, part of the new bill aims to close a loophole from the previous decree in July, whereby there was potential for operators to implement Huawei equipment they already own and had stockpiled before the end of the year, when the full ban was implemented.

Reports in the UK suggest that this new condition will cause more cost and inconvenience to the UK mobile industry, which may have planned the deployment of such technology before the December deadline. Operators EE and Vodafone have the greatest exposure to the need to replace Huawei kit, and Three UK to a lesser extent.

Read more about UK 5G

Not surprisingly, Huawei expressed further disappointment with the new proposed legislation. “It’s disappointing that the government is looking to exclude Huawei from the 5G roll-out,” said Huawei vice-president Victor Zhang. “This decision is politically motivated and not based on a fair evaluation of the risks.

“It does not serve anyone’s best interests as it would move Britain into the digital slow lane and put at risk the government’s levelling up agenda.”

Just over a week ago, Huawei released the findings of a report from business analysts Oxford Economics showing not only that it was responsible for a £3.3bn contribution to GDP and supported 51,000 jobs through its economic activity, its 5G technology and services enabled UK operators to stay competitive in 5G deployment. Earlier research commissioned by the company showed that a 5G roll-out delay could see a £18.2bn hit to UK economy.

Yet the new bill has gained some support in the IT community. Julian David, CEO of UK technology membership organisation techUK, gave support to what he said was the government’s drive to strengthen security and maintain trust in the UK’s telecoms networks. “Gigabit connectivity is an essential driver of a levelled up economic recovery,” he said.

“The government has promised an accompanying diversification strategy to expand the number of supplier available in the UK. It must deliver on this promise with a strategy that is ambitious, fully funded and maximises opportunities for UK companies in areas such as software, small cells and semiconductors.”

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