UK’s reliance on two vendors poses risks to 5G network resilience and security, says Select Committee

February 8, 2021

The House of Commons Science and Technology Committee has published a report highlighting the dependency of the UK’s 5G rollout on just two vendors, posing risks to network resilience and security.  

The fifth generation of mobile telecommunications technology started being deployed in the UK in 2019. 5G networks are intended to provide faster data transfer rates, faster responses, greater reliability and the ability to support greater densities of devices than previous generations. These capabilities are expected to offer significant new applications and consequent economic growth. The development and deployment of 5G has, however, coincided with increased scrutiny of potential security concerns related to the infrastructure and companies providing 5G networks.

Following US sanctions on Huawei, the UK’s National Cyber Security Centre recommended that network operators should not use 5G access equipment supplied by Huawei after implementation of the sanctions. The UK government subsequently introduced legislation that would forbid the use of 5G infrastructure equipment procured from Huawei after 31 December 2020. Following a warning from the National Cyber Security Centre that “only having two suppliers into all national mobile networks reduces network resilience and security”, the government published a 5G Supply Chain Diversification Strategy in November 2020 setting out measures aimed at diversifying the global telecommunications supply chain. The Committee says that a much more detailed action plan is needed – and quickly.

The government’s 5G supply chain diversification strategy has come too late to prevent the problems with having only two equipment suppliers, and will – by its own admission – take years to achieve any success. To avoid similar situations arising in other technologies, the Committee says the government must act to urgently assess its potential dependence on suppliers of emerging technologies. 

Drawing on evidence taken throughout the course of the inquiry, the report warns against repeating mistakes as new and important technologies evolve. The Committee calls on the government to publish a new assessment of the risks of global technological divergence of standards – and the UK’s action plan – within 12 months.

The recommended White Paper should identify critical emerging technologies and associated risks of dependency on high risk vendors, and set out the government’s proposed response, including consideration of domestic capability and international co-operation, research and supply chain security, and fair, transparent standards setting.

Noting that 5G is not the only emerging technology of critical importance to the UK’s future, the Report sets out a series of key recommendations for the current telecommunications rollout. The Committee recommends that there should be:

  • A programme of research and development actively managed by the government: it must drive the effort with industry and academia to meet its long-term objectives rather than take a passive approach;
  • A range of measures to diversify the market; and
  • International co-operation: the UK accounts for a small proportion of the global telecommunications market, so international co-ordination will be critical. The Committee recommends that the government establish a standing forum for international co-operation on diversifying the telecommunications market.