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The red card that the UK has taken from Huawei in 5g has hidden and visible costs. By granting BT and Vodafone seven years to remove the Chinese tech giant’s kit from their networks, the government hopes to downgrade the account. Still, Huawei rivals Nokia and Ericsson will end up with added market control. And that raises concerns both financially and security-wise.
The decision constitutes an embarrassing 180-degree turn for Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who less than six months ago decreed that Huawei could provide up to 35% of the least sensitive parts of next-generation mobile networks. The sanctions established by the United States in May have changed the calculation. The danger is that Huawei will run out of components, or end up developing new Chinese chips whose security is more difficult for the intelligence services to unravel. The severe treatment that China has applied to Hong Kong in recent weeks has not helped improve relations.
Johnson tries to cushion the blow by giving BT and Vodafone seven years to obey the order. Some MPs from their own party demanded the withdrawal of Huawei in less than half the time. But that schedule could have caused system outages and inflated the £ 2bn that cost of removing already installed Huawei equipment will cost. However, that cost calculation does not take into account the increased market share of Ericsson and Nokia, Huawei’s only true rivals as providers of 5G equipment to the United Kingdom. If he forces himself to pack, the Nordic duo has a chance to build muscle and impose prices.
Having only two providers also raises questions about the resilience of the network. To avoid single points of possible failure, network designers require at least two kit providers. If either one slips, the 5G infrastructure in Britain will depend on a single manufacturer. Johnson may have created another by trying to solve one problem.