(Bloomberg) -- The U.K. will keep Huawei Technologies Co. out of “critical national infrastructure,” Culture Secretary Nicky Morgan said, as the government weighs up whether the Chinese company can play a role in developing the country’s 5G telecommunications networks.
A final decision will come later his month, according to two officials familiar with the matter, who asked not to be named discussing the sensitive issue.
Morgan’s comments to Bloomberg are her strongest signal yet that Huawei will be barred from the most sensitive parts of the U.K.’s 5G telecommunications networks -- though the term can also refer to a broader range of assets including power plants and emergency services. Prime Minister Boris Johnson hinted this week he is preparing to allow Huawei to supply at least some equipment for the next-generation broadband networks, even in the face of strong pressure for a ban from the U.S.
“I just want to make it very clear, Huawei will not be involved in our critical national infrastructure,” Morgan told Bloomberg Television on Wednesday. “The security, the safety of that infrastructure is absolutely paramount when the government is going to be making that decision.”
The U.K. must balance the demands of its allies, especially the U.S., who say allowing the Chinese company to be involved in 5G networks presents a security risk, with its domestic priorities of accelerating the roll-out of faster broadband.
“5G is very important -- and the roll-out of 5G -- in terms of encouraging tech companies to be based here, so there are a number of different factors in making that decision,” Morgan said. “Huawei already have a part that they are playing in our 4G and 5G networks.”
She also pointed out that the U.K. depends on relatively few telecommunications suppliers.
“The diversification of the 5G providers, people supplying into the networks, is absolutely a concern and not just of interest to the U.K. but to countries around the world who are looking to expand their 5G networks,” Morgan said earlier on Bloomberg Radio.
Morgan said the U.K.’s National Security Council would discuss the Huawei question, and the government’s decision would be a matter of collective responsibility for all ministers. There have been reports that Home Secretary Priti Patel is among those ministers opposed to allowing Huawei any role.
So-called 5G, which stands for fifth-generation wireless technology, promises speeds as much as 100-times faster than current 4G networks, potentially unlocking new technologies, including automated factories.
Senior U.S. officials visited London on Monday to urge the U.K. to bar Huawei completely from 5G networks, amid concern that any involvement could open the door to Chinese spies. The U.S. officials warned intelligence sharing in future could be at risk if Britain did not ban the company.
Boris Johnson Hints He Won’t Ban Huawei From U.K.’s 5G Networks
But Morgan’s comments are the second strong hint this week that the U.K. won’t bow to U.S. demands, after Johnson told the BBC on Tuesday that “the British public deserve to have access to the best possible technology.”
“We want to put in gigabit broadband for everybody,” Johnson said. “If people oppose one brand or another, then they have to tell us what’s the alternative.”
Friends and Allies
Morgan said the government will be conscious of the views its intelligence-sharing partners in the so-called Five Eyes group -- comprising the U.S., Canada, Australia, New Zealand and U.K. -- in making its decision.
One U.K. official said that the U.S. government’s public lobbying for a ban had been counter-productive for the Americans, because it made it harder for Johnson to change tack without appearing to be bowing to pressure from President Trump.
Huawei’s supporters argue that the company's equipment can be used in non-core areas in a way that keeps the networks secure. But the U.S. warns that the effects of the leap to 5G technology are so poorly understood that the safest and best solution is to keep the Chinese company out altogether. Huawei denies it poses a spying risk.
“We are confident that the U.K. government will make a decision based upon evidence, as opposed to unsubstantiated allegations,” Huawei Vice President Victor Zhang said in an emailed statement on Tuesday.
Meanwhile, China called on the U.K. to ignore outside pressure.
“We hope that the U.K. can make its decision independently,” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang told reporters Wednesday in Beijing, adding that Britain’s policy should be “based on its own interests and provide an open, just and non-discriminatory business environment for Chinese companies.”
--With assistance from Roger Hearing, Olivia Konotey-Ahulu, Anna Edwards, Nejra Cehic, Matthew Miller, Nate Lanxon, Thomas Seal and Colum Murphy.
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