Margot James is a former BEIS and DCMS Minister, and was MP for Stourbridge from 2010-2019.
I have visited a number of sites piloting different applications using 5G technology. At the University of Surrey, the use of 5G to enable people with dementia to be cared for at home is showing great potential. The researchers gave me quite an impactful demonstration when they produced a robot powered by 5G performing a few impressive tasks. They asked me if I wanted to see what would happen if they switched the robot back to 4G; when they did so, the robot keeled over and was capable of next to nothing.
The next release of the 5G standard is due in June of this year. The new standard will enable the performance of wired ethernet with the flexibility of wireless communication. Although consumers will benefit from vastly superior connection speeds (5G reacts in a thousandth of a second delivering speeds of hundreds of Mbps per second), the potential for 5G to dramatically improve productivity, and UK competitiveness, is the real prize.
The UK is a leader in the deployment of 5G in a wide variety of applications. The Urban Connected Communities project which links 5G infrastructure between Wolverhampton, Birmingham and Coventry will deploy up to £50 million in public funds to test the potential of 5G in many settings, from the integration of patient care between the Queen Elizabeth Hospital and GPs in Birmingham to the application of 5G to research in to electrification and other aspects of advanced manufacturing at the University of Warwick.
The UK is one of only five countries in the world to allow private networks to deploy 5G. Ocado already has a private network in which many warehousing and distribution functions have been automated and are now staffed by robots, connected to each other by 5G.
5G is a base technology that will enable many applications such as biometric authentication, machine learning, the internet of things (IoT), big data, automation and robotics. Robot-enabled remote surgery and driverless vehicles will become a reality only when 5G is widely deployed. This is why 5G is so fundamental to an effective industrial policy; one that can truly deliver greater regional prosperity and the dramatic improvements to UK productivity and competitiveness that need to underpin our post-Brexit economy. 5G will be essential to the automation of parts of the economy, like agriculture, that have been overly dependent on unskilled labour from abroad.
The security of our telecoms infrastructure is vitally important, and the difficult decision over the role of Huawei in the supply chain is about to be made. Given the intensity of US lobbying and the action taken to exclude Huawei by Australia and New Zealand, it would be very difficult for us to do nothing. If doing nothing is not an option, the decision comes down to whether the risk can be managed, or whether the risk justifies an outright ban on Huawei from the deployment of 5G. Of course this would then beg the question what, if anything, to do about the scale of Huawei kit in the existing 4G and fixed networks?
According to Enders Analysis, Huawei has the largest market share in the supply of existing telecoms equipment (28 per cent vs Nokia at 17 per cent and Ericsson at 13 per cent). When it comes to 5G, Huawei has invested more and are between six and twelve months ahead of their rivals as a result. Furthermore, there is a fundamental difference between the nature of the spectrum bands the US market are using to introduce 5G compared with Europe. Ericsson have invested more to meet the spectrum needs of the US market, and Huawei have invested more in the different spectrum bands 5G will be using in the European market.
Anything more than a partial ban – i.e. restricting Huawei equipment to the periphery of the 5G network, as it has been in the current fixed and mobile infrastructure – would have serious negative consequences for our ability to keep up with other countries and maintain our 5G advantage where we have one. A total ban on Huawei can only be justified if there is unequivocal evidence that the risk to our national security is real; and cannot be managed effectively.
For the last ten years the risk has been managed by the Huawei Cyber Security Evaluation Centre (HCSEC). This centre has enabled close scrutiny of Huawei products and standards with regard to reliability, resilience and security by our National Cyber Security Centre (NCSC). Deficiencies have been found recently in the quality of certain Huawei products and engineering processes. The problems identified have been comparable to the sorts of issues that might arise from this level of scrutiny of any companies’ products, and are not consistent with a serious threat to our national security.
From a reading of the public statements put out by different arms of the security services it seems that there is not a clear consensus on the level of risk. Importantly, MI5 do not think that allowing some involvement by Huawei in our telecoms supply chain would jeopardise the sharing of intelligence between Britain and the US.
Close examination of exactly what the US are doing in respect of their clampdown on Huawei is instructive. For a start, the US is not paying a significant price in banning Huawei from the roll out of 5G, as the company has nothing like as significant a share of the US telecoms infrastructure market as it has in the UK. Huawei has been placed on the US Entity list – meaning that US companies must apply for a license in order to sell technology to the company.
The US Government has been subject to intense lobbying efforts from such companies as Intel and Qualcomm, which are trying to get the Department of Commerce to ease the restrictions. These companies have had some success, in that the department has stated that it will continue to issue licences for the sale of technology to Huawei where there is no specific threat to national security.
There would seem to be a difference between the rhetoric coming out of the US and the implementation of policy. There is a degree of risk management going on in practice in the States and we should do likewise in the UK. To effect a total ban on Huawei products in our telecoms supply chain would put our plans to accelerate the pace of full fibre coverage and 5G deployment back by an unacceptable length of time, three to five years. Such a decision could only be justified if the threat to our security were more substantial than would appear to be the case.