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30 January 2020updated 12 Oct 2023 10:44am

The Huawei debacle shows the government’s failure to invest in British technology

Had the Conservatives pursued a coherent national strategy, the UK would not now be dependent on a high-risk foreign corporation.

By Chi Onwurah

Where on earth is Boris Johnson? Still holidaying in the Caribbean, perhaps, or hiding in a 5G-connected fridge?

Twice this week his ministers have appeared at the despatch box to defend the fiasco that is the government’s approach to our 5G infrastructure. And twice the Prime Minister has been nowhere to be found.

It could be that faced with outrage from the Conservative Parliamentary Party, he was too scared to address the House. That would be bad enough. Or it could be that the Prime Minister doesn’t recognise the critical importance of this issue to our national security and the future competitiveness of our economy. That would be much worse.

At least the junior minister sent in his place on Monday had the good grace to blush during our exchanges – because it is genuinely a national embarrassment to find ourselves in this position.

The UK has a proud technological history, from the earliest days of the industrial revolution through to the invention of the Turing machine. More recently, BT Labs in Martlesham have provided leading advances in communications technology. Why, then, at the outset of the fourth industrial revolution, are we now begging for scraps from China’s table?

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5G represents much more than just faster mobile internet speeds – it is an “enabling technology”. Just as the World Wide Web made possible applications that its inventor Tim Berners-Lee could never have dreamed of, 5G provides the platform for the technologies that will define the 21st century, from connected manufacturing and telemedicine to advanced forms of machine learning and the Internet of Things. The government knew that excluding Huawei entirely was not an option, because it would have meant falling behind even further in the race to enter this brave new world.

Ministers are now claiming they will reduce our reliance on “high-risk vendors” such as Huawei over the next five to ten years, but they can’t say how. It is a damning indictment of their record over the last decade that they have let us get into this situation at all. If the Tories had shown more leadership, more foresight, and more willingness to invest in British technology rather than leaving it all to the market, then we would not now be dependent on high-risk foreign vendors to build out our critical national infrastructure.

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If, if, if. Yet as the government has acknowledged, we are in a position of “market failure”. In other words, the failure of this government to make the market work. The official verdict of our own National Cyber Security Centre is that giving Huawei a restricted role is acceptable on security grounds. That, surely, should carry more weight than nocturnal tweets from members of the Trump administration, or furious interventions from Tory backbenchers jockeying for roles on the Foreign Affairs Select Committee.

But where do we go from here? How do we make sure we are never again so dependent on one high-risk supplier that limiting its use in our networks could cost nearly £7bn pounds and delay our technological development by nearly two years?

For a start, the government needs to tell us what measures will be put in place to ensure that Huawei will not have access to “core” and “sensitive” parts of the network, or indeed which parts of the network it will designate as such. It also needs to explain how it determined the 35 per cent cap on Huawei’s market share in every region and how this will be enforced.

The NCSC’s report stated that for the mobile market “security does not pay”. Labour has been pointing this out for years, yet Ofcom has still not been given the resources or powers to set down standards and properly enforce them. Each generation of technology is built on the previous one, so in particular we need the government to demand interoperability standards. Otherwise, we risk being locked into the use of high-risk vendors forever.

We will be pushing for all of this and more to be spelt out in legislation, as the government has promised – and sooner, rather than later. While no network can ever be fully impervious to attack – indeed, one common mantra in the cybersecurity world is “assume breach” – MPs need to be able to reassure their constituents that we aren’t handing China the power to steal their data or switch off their broadband.

As well as offering assurances on security, the government needs to come clean about how this decision will affect its stated ambition of making 5G “widely available” by 2027. Mobile UK, the trade body which represents UK network operators, estimated that limiting Huawei’s role could mean delaying the roll-out by 18 to 24 months, at a cost to the economy of up to £6.8bn.

We need, as a matter of urgency, to hear whether the government agrees with this assessment. And if it believes this is a price worth paying to ensure our networks remain secure, then it should say so – and it should offer support to workers, businesses and communities who could lose out as a result of any delay.

Above all, however, this debacle demonstrates the need for cast-iron commitments from the government that it will act to develop and maintain our technological sovereignty. This is the only way of ensuring that we never again have to choose between prosperity and national security.

Since entering office the Tories have consistently failed to develop and safeguard our domestic technological capabilities. While at times there have been positive noises – such as the government’s belated adoption of an industrial strategy and the establishment of an Office for AI – they have rarely been backed up by serious funding or a long-term plan. We have also seen the Tories watch with apparent indifference as two of the jewels in the UK’s digital crown – DeepMind and ARM – have been bought up by foreign multinationals (Google and Japan’s SoftBank).

If, as British investor and entrepreneur Ian Hogarth claims, we are entering a new era of “AI nationalism” in which sovereign technological capabilities will be crucial, this government’s record does not augur well. As well as specific commitments on the issue of Huawei’s involvement in our 5G network, the government should start to proactively identify future technological needs and invest strategically to ensure that they can be met by a wider range of providers. This is – literally – not rocket science. Everything in the field today was in the lab ten years ago. It is possible to have a forward-looking approach to our strategic engineering capability.

The Tories claim to care about political sovereignty – about “taking back control” from foreign powers. It is high time they started caring about technological sovereignty, too.

Tracy Brabin is the shadow secretary of state for digital, culture, media and sport, Chi Onwurah is the shadow minister for industrial strategy