DCMS and NCSC warn UK telco review might impact 5G supply chain

Reports of a letter circulating through the offices of UK telcos have emerged, though DCMS has played down the anti-China rhetoric which has been pinned to the communication.

“The Future Telecoms Infrastructure Review set out our long term plans to provide world class digital connectivity through full fibre connectivity and 5G mobile coverage,” DCSC stated. “As part of this, we are conducting a review of the supply chain underpinning those ambitions to ensure a healthy, diverse and secure supply base, now and into the future.”

The letter itself, which will not be officially released to the industry, has been signed by Matthew Gould, Head of Digital Policy at the Department of Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, and Ciaran Martin, Chief Executive of the National Cyber Security Centre, and reportedly suggests telcos should evaluate the resilience and security of their supply chains ahead of the much hyped 5G euphoria.

Although reports have emerged in the FT this morning, with the anti-China rhetoric featuring heavily throughout, DCMS has distanced itself from a targeted and calculated review. The review, and letter, is not targeted at a specific country, or firms which call that country home, but ensuring the UK has the right overall framework in place to ensure secure and resilience telecoms networks. The review will consider the economics of 5G, as well as aiming to create the desired resilience and security standards.

What is worth noting is that this letter is not new. The review and communications with telcos has been discussed in the House of Commons, while the letter itself was sent to executives weeks ago and originally unearthed by Politico. The anti-China rhetoric, which is outwardly present in other nations, seems to be more interpretation from the industry in this case.

That said, it is not completely misguided to assume the review does have a couple of nations in mind. NCSC has previously warned operators against using ZTE equipment in their networks as this might impact the long-term security of the UK, and with the rest of the world pointing a suspecting finger at Huawei, it would not be out of the question for the UK to jump on the band wagon.

While President Trump has been aggressively leading the anti-China sentiment across the US, Australia followed suit by banning the firm from participating in the Aussie 5G bonanza and South Korean telcos coincidentally left Huawei out from their preferred suppliers.

The conundrum the UK faces is focused around future trade and relationships with the rest of the world. With Brexit on the horizon, and looking increasingly unfavourable for the UK, bonds will need to be strengthened with other nations. Unfortunately this leaves the UK in a difficult position, with historic partner US on one side of the argument and the Chinese, a country various UK governments have attempted to get closer to, on the other.

While DCMS and the UK on the whole seemingly wants to justifiably maintain a neutral position in such reviews, we don’t doubt there will be a few cogs in the machine who are harbouring suspicions of the Chinese, which are starting to become commonplace.

This might not be a Chinese witch hunt, though it is certainly reasonable to assume that a level of biased suspicion will be present in some minds. What impact this has on the UK’s relationship with China and its kit vendors remains to be seen.