US Security Advisor lands to rub shoulders with BoJo

US National Security Advisor John Bolton has landed in the UK over the weekend to attend various meetings over the next two days, and its not difficult to imagine what is on the agenda.

Bolton has been a regularly featured name in Republican Presidential administrations since the early 80s and is credited with being one of the more hawkish members of the current ruling mob. With Brexit a key concern for many parties around the world, the up-coming deadline is likely to feature in many conversations, though with the newly-appointed Prime Minister available for coaxing, China and Iran will also feature heavily.

Prime Minister Boris John is somewhat of an unknown entity in recent months. BoJo has never been far away from Brexit headlines, but after an exit from the Foreign Department in 2018, other comments have been largely immaterial. During the Conservative Leadership campaign, BoJo was kept under control by the PR gurus, with many assuming public engagements would likely do more damage than good to leadership ambitions. This does create somewhat of a void when it comes to the stance against China.

This is an area where BoJo has remained relatively quiet. Of course, there has been the odd outburst and political PR plug, but the relationship with China during the Johnson leadership is still relatively undefined. This could be seen though the latest update on the on-going Supply Chain Review.

During the Supply Chain Review update last month, then-Secretary of State Jeremy Wright gave little-to-no details on the Government stance. Legislative updates were promised, and homages paid to the value of increased supply chain diversity, but no decision, or suggestion of, on the role of Huawei in the UK were offered. Reading between the lines, Wright did not want to stick his neck out when a new PM was on the verge of being appointed.

Where BoJo sits is an unknown entity.

BoJo has made some big promises on the campaign trail for the leadership position, while he still has to deliver on the big Brexit claims made three years ago. Some of these were built around the idea trade negotiations would be simpler outside of the European Union, suggesting China would play a role in the post-Brexit future of the UK. This contradicts the US relationship however.

The Trump administration is very anti-China, with Huawei absorbing the largest damage in this prolonged trade-conflict. BoJo is somewhat of a pet favourite of President Donald Trump, however it will be interesting to see whether the ego-stroking with be returned from Number 10. Downing Street.

With Bolton in town, it is not difficult to imagine how the conversations with evolve. Bolton is a constant critic of the European Union, labelling the bureaucrats ‘EUroids’ in one of his books. His aggressive stance against China has been clear over the last few months, and we suspect this will continue through discussions over the next couple of days.

The decision on Huawei in the UK is still hanging in the balance. Bolton is very well-placed to nudge the UK towards a more strident position against China, though how healthy this is for the UK remains to be seen. The next couple of days might offer some interesting insight to the BoJo administration and the UK’s position in the international conflict which has dominated headlines for months.

Breaking down the Supply Chain Review Statement

Although there was very little said during the Supply Chain Review statement yesterday, there are some interesting developments worth keeping an eye on.

Speaking to the House of Commons, Secretary of State for the Department of Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Jeremy Wright did as most expected he would and dodged the Huawei decision. Although we were promised a decision by March, the slippery politician has managed to create enough breathing room to get him through to September.

Despite some being disappointed by a lack of clarity on the competitive landscape for UK communications infrastructure, there were a few takeaways.

There’s no avoiding interference from Transatlantic geo-politics

Every politician will tell you decisions are made dependent on what is best for the British people alone, but it is impossible to avoid the US here. The White House and its aggressive policies are causing havoc around the world, including here in the UK.

Fundamentally, without a decision on Huawei there is no clarity for investment and progress into the digital economy will falter.

Wright said a decision on Huawei would be made irrespective of the political influences of the US, but US interference is unavoidable.

“The hon. Gentleman has said that he is concerned to ensure that this should be a decision about the interests of the UK and not the priorities of the US Administration, and I understand that,” Wright said in response to the suggestion the US has too much influence from Tom Watson, Shadow Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport.

“I can give him the assurance that decisions we take will be decisions in the best interests of the United Kingdom, but he knows that this is a hugely interconnected sector and it simply is not possible to make sensible judgments about telecommunications without recognising those interconnections.”

With Huawei being placed on the Entity List the performance, resilience and security of its products might be impacted in the future. Wright has said he will not make a decision on Huawei until he has all the facts, and the relationship between China and the US is a huge factor in this.

Kicking the can to avoid irritating the new boss

Despite there being pressure from influential Parliamentary groups and the telco industry to make a decision, it was always highly unlikely Wright was going to say anything until his new boss has taken residence in No.10 Downing Street.

Boris Johnson is the new Prime Minister and he will want to put his own mark on proceedings. The Huawei decision is an important one, not only for UK 5G infrastructure, but because it will impact the relationship with the US. BoJo has already shown himself as somewhat of a pet of the President and will most likely want to nurture this relationship as only he knows how.

Wright does not want to jump the gun on making a decision and potentially irritating the new boss, especially when there is a potential promotion around the corner.

David Guake, the Justice Secretary, has resigned. Education Minister Anne Milton has gone. Chancellor of the Exchequer Philip Hammond has publicly stated he would quit if BoJo won. Rory Stewart, the Secretary of State for International Development, formally announced his resignation over Twitter at 11.18am. And finally, it is highly likely Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt, BoJo’s opponent for PM, will be shifted elsewhere.

“The reality is that this statement is just a lot of words to confirm further delay. Why are the decisions now being left in the gift of the new Prime Minister? Is this just another case of putting the Tory party before the country?” SNP MP Alan Brown questioned.

As one of the few politicians who managed to remain neutral during the proceedings, Wright could find himself heading up a new department before too long.

Security framework will make UK more secure

This is perhaps the most encouraging snippet to emerge from a relatively shallow statement overall; security requirements will be heightened for everyone.

“Fundamentally, we must make a decision on the basis of what is in our security interests, but he is also right that if we were to focus solely on one company or country, we would miss the broader important point that our telecoms supply chain must be resilient and secure, regardless of where equipment comes from, because risk may transfer from place to place and our population is entitled to expect that the approach we take puts security at its heart, wherever the equipment comes from,” Wright stated.

Although there are few details available regarding the new security requirements, Wright has suggested there will be a more stringent framework set in place and on-going assessments to ensure standards are being maintained. This will be applicable to every supplier, irrelevant of where they have come from.

To start with, this will be a voluntary scheme for the telcos, but soon enough it will be cemented in place through legislation. This takes time, but it is encouraging that the Government recognises threats can come from anywhere, everyone has a globalised supply chain and cybercriminals are becoming much more capable.

If policies have the position of 100% secure is impossible and everyone is a potential threat, risk mitigation levels should be set higher. This is the best possible means to achieve a resilient and secure network, capable of dealing with threats irrelevant as to their origin or intention.

Vendor diversification is nothing but a smokescreen

It might sound like a wonderful plug, but suggesting the UK is going to encourage diversification in the supply chain is nothing but a distraction to attract PR points for DCMS.

“In addition, we must have a competitive, sustainable and diverse supply chain if we are to drive innovation and reduce the risk of dependency on individual suppliers,” Wright said.

“The Government will therefore pursue a targeted diversification strategy, supporting the growth of new players in the parts of the network that pose security and resilience risks. We will promote policies that support new entrants and the growth of smaller firms.”

During the statement, Wright promised work will be done to enable smaller and more innovative players to contribute to the 5G euphoria. This sounds good and, in theory, addresses a long-standing problem in the telco world, but let’s not get ahead of ourselves.

The telco industry has been attempting to create a more diverse supply chain for years, as well as adapting procurement models to ensure smaller companies can weave through the red-tape maze. There has been little progress to date and intervention from DCMS is unlikely to reap any material changes.

You also have to wonder whether Wright is tackling the challenge head-on. Wright pointed to funding which has been directed towards the West Midlands and other innovation hubs, however this is not the problem which the telco industry has been facing. The limited supply chain is most harmful in places like the access network or core. This is where there are so few suppliers and competition has been impacting the cost of deployment.

Wright might be encouraging diversification and growth for start-ups, but don’t be fooled by this statement; he is not directly tackling the biggest competition challenge the industry faces.

Long-overdue legislative overhaul and Ofcom empowerment

The legislative and regulatory landscape has needed an update for years and Wright is promising one. Not only would this put the security framework into law, it will also ensure Ofcom has the right powers to be effective in the digital economy.

“We will pursue legislation at the earliest opportunity to provide Ofcom with stronger powers to allow for the effective enforcement of the telecoms security requirements and to establish stronger national security backstop powers for Government,” Wright said.

Until the new legislation is put in place, Government and Ofcom will work with all telecoms operators to secure adherence to the new requirements on a voluntary basis.”

Many of the rules which govern the telecoms and technology industry have been written for a bygone era. This is an outcome which is largely unavoidable when you consider the speed at which progress develops nowadays. However, rules need to be brought into the 21st century.

Legislation will offer the Government more influence over commercial communications infrastructure while Ofcom will have its teeth sharpened. It’s a long-overdue update.

Not much said, but potential to progress

Overall, there was little said by Wright in terms of material progress, but there is enough evidence the UK is creeping forward toward contextual relevance. We saw hints of progress yesterday, but realistically, the new Prime Minister and his administration will dictate evolution over the coming months and years.

This announcement is about further delay – UK Gov on Huawei

The UK Government has made it clear the Supply Chain Review is about more than one company or one country, but the Huawei dilemma is the most important question; and there still is no answer.

Speaking in the House of Commons late Tuesday (22 July), Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Jeremy Wright updated the world on the progress of the Supply Chain Review. This Review has seemingly faltered progress towards the digital euphoria, and it appears this statement is nothing more than a delay with some vague promises on security updates.

“This announcement is about further delay,” Wright stated to the House of Commons.

DCMS has not made a decision on Huawei. There is still potential the firm might be banned, Wright stated this during the grilling from MPs.

Huawei’s fate is still far from certain and now the can has been kicked down the road, where even more unknowns are going to be presented. Who will be the new Prime Minister? What will his attitude be towards China? How cosy will he be with President Trump and the US? Who will be the senior politicians running each of the Departments next week?

Unfortunately for DCMS, this Review might well be bigger than one company or country, but it is unavoidable to think about anything else at the moment. Wright has made several other minor announcements on new security frameworks and requirements, policy and legislation updates and efforts to diversify the supply chain. These were all supposed to offer the telcos confidence, but realistically, nothing has changed.

Wright has announced the conclusions which have been drawn from the Supply Chain Review. Firstly, existing networks have been built with commercial attractiveness in mind not cybersecurity. Secondly, policies and legislation are woefully out-of-date. And finally, supply chains are too focused on single suppliers.

To right these wrongs, new security requirements will be placed on any vendor who wishes to contribute to UK communications infrastructure. Ofcom will be granted new powers to enforce new frameworks. There will be more oversight on procurement and Government will be given more opportunity to intervene if necessary. These requirements will be voluntary to start with but will be legislated for as soon as possible.

The message from Wright is that telcos can carry on working with any company it wants to, but without a concrete decision on the fate of Huawei, does this actually mean anything? No, it doesn’t.

Telcos want certainty to invest the billions required to make the 5G era a reality and this is anything but certainty. Scaling up network deployment aggressively still might turn out to be an expensive mistake. There are so few vendors in this segment of the telco ecosystem, the importance of this decision cannot be under-played.

However, there certainly were some welcomed points made during the announcement.

“Risk can transfer from place to place,” Wright commented with regard to enhanced security requirements being applied universally.

The new security framework and on-going assurance testing for equipment, systems and software will be applied to every supplier that wants to be incorporated into the UKs communications infrastructure. This is a refreshing approach, understanding the global nature of supply chains. There is a risk when working with any supplier as their own complex supply chains are vulnerable for intrusion.

Additional requirements will be placed on ‘high risk vendors’, though in escalating the security requirements across the entire ecosystem, the task of managing risk is much more comprehensive. This should, in theory, create a landscape which is much more resilient and secure.

However, you cannot escape the fact this announcement was little more than politely informing the community of another delay. The sense of purgatory will continue for months and the void of investment will be maintained. There have been some minor steps forward, but without a decision on Huawei, uncertainty remains. And uncertainty is one of the biggest enemies of the telco industry.

The UK created a fast-follower position in the 5G era but the inability of politicians to make a decision is simply dragging the UK bag to the chasing peloton of mediocrity.

Parliamentary Intelligence Committee piles pressure on Huawei decision

The Parliamentary Intelligence and Security Committee has unveiled a statement to rubbish delays put on the Supply Chain Review, demanding a decision ASAP.

In the same week as the Chair of the Science and Technology Committee suggested there are no technical reasons to ban Huawei, the Intelligence and Security Committee has demanded a sharp decision or risk losing a strong position in the digital economy.

“5G will transform our day to day lives – if it meets its full potential – and it could be key to our future prosperity,” a statement from the Committee reads. “Such an important decision therefore requires careful consideration. However, the extent of the delay is now causing serious damage to our international relationships: a decision must be made as a matter of urgency.”

While the UK fell drastically behind the norm when it came to adopting 4G, progress has been much more promising for 5G. While calling oneself a global leader usually means little coming from the mouths of groomed politicians, in this case the UK is a genuine leader in the 5G race. There are only a handful of nations who launched ahead of the UK and the opportunity to scale nationwide rapidly is certainly is present.

However, the Intelligence and Security Committee, chaired by Dominic Grieve, feel this is a position which is becoming increasingly vulnerable. The longer this review continues, the slower 5G expansion plans will be, and the greater the opportunity for fast-followers to catch-up.

That said, perhaps the biggest revelation from the Intelligence and Security Committee seems to be the implications to national security.

“However, the telecoms market has been consolidated down to just a few players: in the case of 5G there are only three potential suppliers to the UK – Nokia, Ericsson and Huawei,” the reports states. “Limiting the field to just two, on the basis of the above arguments, would increase over-dependence and reduce competition, resulting in less resilience and lower security standards.”

Despite many critics of Huawei suggesting inclusion of the firm in critical infrastructure would compromise national security, Grieve’s opinion is that reducing the number of available vendors would create more problems. Not only would the networks be more expensive to build, but resilience would be dampened as well.

As you can imagine, Huawei are relatively pleased with the report from the Committee.

“We agree that diversity improves resilience in networks,” said Victor Zhang, Vice-President of Huawei. “We’ve been a part of UK networks for 18 years. 5G is critical for the UK and is the foundation of tomorrow’s digital and mobile economy. Quite simply, it will improve people’s lives. Our priority has only ever been to deliver world-leading technology to our customers.”

This is the problem the Department of Digital, Media, Culture and Sport (DCMS), the National Cyber Security Centre (NCSC) and the wider Government, is facing. Not only does DCMS have to recruit a new Digital Minister after the resignation of Margot James, deal with Brexit and select a new Prime Minister, it has to come to decision on the role of Huawei in the 5G era.

This statement and the report from the Science and Technology Committee is piling up the pressure. The message is relatively clear, these distractions should not undermine the importance of coming to a conclusion on Huawei.

At some point, the UK Government is going to have to hurt someone’s feelings. Either the relationship between the UK and the US or China is going to be impacted. With Brexit around the corner, the UK needs to nurture relationships outside of the European Union, but unfortunately it is unavoidable here.

The pressure is mounting and soon enough the Government will have to make a decision. It has been able to procrastinate, but the more influential groups who press for a conclusion, soon enough the Government will have to show some progress.

UK telcos ask for clarity sooner rather than later over Huawei – report

The UK’s largest mobile operators are reported getting tired of Government indecision, drafting a letter to Cabinet Secretary Mark Sedwill requesting clarification on the situation.

The BBC is claiming to have seen a draft in which a decision has been urged. As it stands, the MNOs are in the telco version of purgatory. The 5G world is fast approaching, but with the Government getting comfortable on the fence, no-one will want to make any investment decisions, a wrong-turn could prove to be very expensive.

In response to the rumours of such a letter, the UK Government has asked for patience.

“The security and resilience of the UK’s telecoms networks is of paramount importance,” said a Government spokesperson. “We have robust procedures in place to manage risks to national security and are committed to the highest possible security standards.

“The Telecoms Supply Chain Review will be announced in due course. We have been clear throughout the process that all network operators will need to comply with the Government’s decision.”

What is worth noting is the BBC coverage perhaps reflects a sense of urgency which is not felt by the telcos. Having reached out to contacts in the industry, the tone of urgency which has been reflected in the article does not seem to represent the climate for the telcos. It is a sensitive issue, and the message seems to be clear; we’re not going to force the hand of the Government into a speedy decision.

“We do not comment on draft documents,” said a Vodafone spokesperson. “We would ask for any decision regarding the future use of Huawei equipment in the UK not to be rushed but based on all the facts.”

“We are in regular contact with UK Government around this topic, and continue to discuss the impact of possible regulation on UK telecoms networks,” said a BT spokesperson.

That said, a decision needs to come sooner rather than later.

Currently the MNOs are in a bit of a bind. Money needs to be spent and networks need to be built to ensure connectivity in the UK meets the standards demanded of the digital economy. However, as there are so few vendors in this segment of the industry clarification on the Huawei situation is critically important.

Without Huawei, the threat of decreased competition might lead to less attractive commercial terms, which could lead to increased prices for the consumer as telcos drive ROI. Telcos will want Huawei to be included in these talks. Right now, no decisions can be made. If the telcos go forward without Huawei, they might be missing a trick, but if they do and the Supply Chain Review bans the firm, the cost of ‘rip and replace’ would be painful. The telcos are just sitting and waiting.

The outcome of the review has already been potentially leaked, suggesting Huawei would be given the greenlight. This leak from the National Security Council led to former-Defence Secretary Gavin Williamson being sacked, though this is not to say the leak is accurate. Last week, the UK hosted US President Donald Trump, and while there was no eureka moment, who knows what was discussed behind closed doors.

The US is sticking by its anti-Huawei position and has even suggested with-holding access to security data from countries who are exposed to the vendor.

That said, there might have been no material conversations held on this topic over the course of the visit. Theresa May is no-longer the political leader of the UK and Trump might have thought it nothing more than a waste of hot-air. This is perhaps one of the biggest issues which the country is facing at the moment; who knows who is going to be leading the Government over the next couple of months.

The Tory party members are going to be choosing the next leader of the Conservative party over the next few weeks, and the tone of 10 Downing Street might change. May seemed to have a much more internationalist approach to politics, though certain candidates are much cosier with the White House. Bookies favourite Boris Johnson is certainly chummier than most with the US President, though others will be in deeper conversations with US delegations than some. This could have an impact on the relationship with China in the long-term, and subsequently, on any decisions made surrounding Huawei.

The consequence of this decision is not only impacting the future of networks in the UK, but also the past. Yes, telcos are reluctant to spend now, but any decision banning Huawei would result in ‘rip and replace’ programmes. Vodafone has already stated it has Huawei equipment on 38% of base stations around the UK and having to replace RAN equipment would set its 5G ambitions back two years. Telcos would also have to consider 4G investments made over the last couple of years.

Although the other telcos have not been as forth-coming with their exposure to Huawei equipment, it would be a fair assumption the vendor’s kit is scattered throughout the network. This is not just a challenge for Vodafone or EE alone, this is an industry-wide worry.

This is not to say the UK would turn into a massive not-spot, but it would have severe implications on the connectivity ambitions of the country.

Some might have expected a decision from the Supply Chain Review in May, but we are still waiting. External factors have perhaps taken priority, the next Prime Minister and the Trump State Visit for example, but that will come as little consolidation for the telcos who are prepping investments.

The UK should not rush this decision, but the longer it leaves the telcos in purgatory the more the country slips behind in the 5G race. Uncertainty is the enemy of telcos and who knows which way this decision will go.