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13th Aug 2022

EU rules leave 5G networks open for Huawei

  • The 'toolbox' will protect citizens and EU’s digital sovereignty, said EU Commission vice-president Margrethe Vestager (Photo: European Commission)

The European Commission unveiled on Wednesday (29 January) the so-called "toolbox" of security standards for 5G without excluding any specific telecom supplier, amid concerns over Huawei's links to China's intelligence services.

5G (fifth generation) is expected to become the connectivity infrastructure that will pave the way for new products and services, such as self-driving cars or industrial robotics.

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"We can do great things with 5G, but only if we can make our networks secure," said the vice-president of the commission in charge of the digital portfolio, Margrethe Vestager, who said it was of "high strategic importance" for the EU.

The toolbox presents a set of guidelines designed to help EU member states mitigate potential risks arising from 5G technology while supporting the commission to ensure a "diverse and sustainable" 5G supply chain to avoid long-term dependency on third countries.

Some of the potential risks identified by EU member states are low equipment quality, espionage, dependency, or Internet of Things (IoT) exploitation.

However, according to Vestager, "this proposal protects our citizens and EU's digital sovereignty".

Following a risk-based approach, EU countries can apply restrictions for suppliers considered to be "high risk" and even exclude them from the core parts and sensible functions of their telecoms networks, the commission said.

However, the institution did not identify any specific "high risk" company, despite the geopolitical tug of war over Huawei, which the US has completely banned from its 5G networks over security risks - and has been pushing its allies to do the same.

"One thing is clear: we're not picking on anybody, we're not ostracising firms," said the European commissioner for the internal market, Thierry Breton.

This means that non-EU providers are welcome to do business in Europe as long as they comply with the rules, Breton said.

Huawei's response

China's Huawei is the world's biggest supplier of telecoms equipment, followed by Sweden's Ericsson and Finland's Nokia.

However, the three companies present "notable differences" in their corporate governance in terms of the level of transparency, according to the commission.

Huawei welcomed the EU announcement, saying that Europe will benefit from this approach.

"This non-biased and fact-based approach towards 5G security allows Europe to have a more secure and faster 5G network," Huawei said in a statement.

The presentation of the toolbox follows the UK's decision to allow Huawei a limited and highly-regulated role in Britain's 5G networks, despite the pressure from Washington.

Next steps

The commission expects member states to have implemented the recommended measures by April this year.

The EU's 5G action plan aims to have a simultaneous launch of services among EU member states, starting at the end of this year, and with a full roll-out in all member states by the end of 2025.

According to the commission, 5G services will be available in 138 European cities by the end of this year.

Additionally, the EU's executive body is already proposing a new institutional partnership under the next long-term EU budget (called Smart Network and Services) which will be working towards 6G, while the commission works with member states and with the parliament to ensure the rollout of 5G technologies - and its security.

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