Britain’s rollout of 5G phone networks could be delayed by up to three years and cost an extra £2bn, as Boris Johnson agreed plans to ban the Chinese telecoms company Huawei as a supplier.
The move infuriated Beijing but also drew criticism from Conservative MPs after Mr Johnson confirmed telecoms operators would have until 2027 to remove Huawei technology from their networks.
The plan outlined by Mr Johnson aimed to minimise the disruption for business and consumers caused by the ban on new Huawei 5G equipment, which will take effect at the end of the year.
In a further recognition that removing Huawei could hold back efforts to boost Britain’s digital economy, phone operators will not have to strip out older 2G, 3G and 4G equipment provided by the Chinese company.
And full-fibre broadband companies will have another two years before they have to stop using Huawei equipment; currently Nokia is the only other player in that market.
Nevertheless Oliver Dowden, culture secretary, told MPs that the Huawei ban — combined with previously announced restrictions — could add £2bn to costs and delay the rollout of 5G networks by two to three years.
Mr Johnson approved the compromise plan at a meeting of his National Security Council but pleased few of those engaged in the politically fraught issue.
Liu Xiaoming, China’s ambassador to the UK, said Britain had made a “disappointing and wrong decision on Huawei”.
“It has become questionable whether the UK can provide an open, fair and non-discriminatory business environment for companies from other countries,” he tweeted.
Mr Liu had warned this month that there would be “consequences” if Britain started to treat China as a hostile country rather than an ally.
China’s foreign ministry said: “Creating an open, equal, non-discriminatory business environment for Chinese companies is a touchstone to see where the UK market is heading after Brexit and it is also a weather vane for whether Chinese investment in the UK is safe.”
Some Tory MPs said they could try to amend legislation in the autumn to accelerate the ripping out of Huawei equipment. David Davis, former minister, said telecoms operators did not need seven years for the task.
Tom Tugendhat, chair of the Commons foreign affairs committee, feared some operators would stockpile cheap Huawei equipment before the ban came into effect in the hope that policy could change before 2027 when it had to be removed.
But Downing Street believed it had split the Tory rebel group and could push through new telecoms legislation. Damian Green, former cabinet minister and another Huawei critic, said the timetable was “quick and practical”.
Telecoms networks publicly expressed disappointment at the new restrictions. Privately executives were relieved that the ban on Huawei had focused only on 5G and that the government had not forced a stricter deadline to rip out existing equipment
BT said the 2027 deadline and focus on 5G meant it would not have to increase the estimated £500m cost to its business of complying with the new restrictions around Huawei.
US President Donald Trump did not comment, but Robert O’Brien, his national security adviser, welcomed the British move, saying it reflected a “growing international consensus” about the threat posed by Huawei.
Mike Pompeo, US secretary of state, who has pushed European nations hard to purge Huawei, said the UK was joining “a growing list of countries from around the world that are standing up for their national security by prohibiting the use of untrusted, high-risk vendors”.
Marco Rubio, a leading China hawk in the US Senate, also welcomed the move, but urged the UK to ban Huawei from 5G networks “without delay”.
Some in Washington privately suspect Mr Johnson delayed the ban from taking effect until December 31 in the hope that Joe Biden might win the presidential election and adopt a softer policy towards Huawei.
Earlier this year, Mr Biden said he supported a ban on Chinese companies building key infrastructure in the US but did not mention Huawei by name.
Just hours before the British decision was announced John Browne, the chairman of Huawei’s UK board, said he would step down in September. Lord Browne, who ran BP between 1995 and 2007, spent five years as Huawei’s first independent chairman.
The 5G decision represents a victory for Mr Trump, whose administration had long urged Mr Johnson to kick Huawei out of the UK on security grounds.
Mr Trump’s latest sanctions would stop Huawei from using US-made chips in its equipment, raising the prospect that the company would have to rely on China-made alternatives.
Having previously advised ministers that the risk from Huawei could be mitigated, UK intelligence chiefs warned Mr Johnson that they could no longer be confident that new kit used by the Chinese company was secure.
The decision to ban the use of new Huawei equipment came six months after Mr Johnson infuriated Washington by agreeing that the company could take up to a 35 per cent share of the 5G market.
Huawei UK’s Ed Brewster said: “Regrettably our future in the UK has become politicised, this is about US trade policy and not security.”