Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

U.K. Allows Chinese Telecom Giant Huawei To Help Build 5G Network Over U.S. Objection


The U.K. says it will let Huawei, the Chinese telecom giant, provide equipment to build the 5G network there, this despite President Trump's repeated insistence that Huawei is a security threat. Well, for more, we turn to NPR's Frank Langfitt. He is in London.

Hey, Frank.


KELLY: Start with this bit about the security threat. Does the U.K. agree that Huawei is a security threat?

LANGFITT: They do. What they say is we can handle it. And so they laid this out today and what they're basically saying they're going to do is have Huawei work on the periphery of the network with only a 35% market share. So this may mean antennas, things like that, but will not be allowed anywhere near intelligence networks here, certainly not nuclear plants and military sites. So what they're basically saying is, yes, we recognize there's some risk here, and we have a way to mitigate it.

KELLY: Why is the U.K. interested in working with Huawei at all, given the Trump administration says not only are they at risk but you should ban them?

LANGFITT: Yeah. Well, I think it's a commercial decision in a lot of ways. Huawei was already integrated into the 4G system here, and if they turned around and banned them, they'd have to tear a lot of it out. That would slow down the rollout of 5G. And, of course, we've got Brexit at the end of this week. The U.K. is leaving the EU. The economy here is already taking something of a hit. And Prime Minister Boris Johnson is very clear. He does not want to fall behind on the Internet. Huawei's also the No. 1 telecom supplier. It does offer competitive pricing. It's true. And so they figure that this is sort of a middle road that they think will help the economy and doesn't pose too much of a threat.

KELLY: I'm curious because how to handle Huawei has been controversial here in the U.S. Has it been controversial in Britain?

LANGFITT: Yeah. It was really interesting to watch the House of Commons after this was announced. And there were a number of members of Boris Johnson's own party who came out and said they thought this was a bad idea, that it was too dangerous. One person pointed out that, you know, Huawei has close ties to the Communist Party, which, you know, he described as having a deeply hostile intelligence network and approach to things. So there's definitely discomfort even in Johnson's own party about this.

KELLY: I want to ask about reaction from two corners. I'll start with the Trump administration. This is not the decision they wanted to see Boris Johnson and his government take.

LANGFITT: No, and they repeatedly told him not to do this. The official word out of the White House speaking to NPR was disappointment and the quote was "there's no safe option for untrusted vendors to control any part of the 5G network." Of course, Mike Pompeo, the secretary of state, will be here tomorrow and Thursday. And we'll see if there's any retaliation. There have been threats of potentially reducing intelligence sharing between the U.K. and the U.S., which are incredibly close allies.

KELLY: And what is Huawei saying? Where are they?

LANGFITT: Huawei is happy, but they're not crowing (ph). They know how to handle this. They say they're reassured by the decision. And Ren Zhengfei, of course - it's worth reminding people that he's the founder - he's saying his firm would never harm a client, would never do anything like this. But David Davis, a former Cabinet minister, here just in the House of Commons earlier today saying, of course, Chinese companies, if the intelligence services in China ask them to do something, they don't have any choice. It is not a rule of law stated as a one-party state.

KELLY: Worth noting, Frank, this is happening the week of Brexit. On Friday, the U.K. officially leaves the EU. Are there implications for Europe more broadly?

LANGFITT: There are. In fact, I think tomorrow we're going to see draft guidelines come out of the European Union. And what we expect is something pretty similar. The European Commission is probably going to recommend against a ban but imposing strict rules on any company that wants to develop 5G. And that will provide cover for some member states who want to work with Huawei for all the obvious commercial reasons.

KELLY: NPR's Frank Langfitt in London.

Thank you, Frank.

LANGFITT: Happy to do it, Mary Louise. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Frank Langfitt is NPR's London correspondent. He covers the UK and Ireland, as well as stories elsewhere in Europe.