Chinese tech giant Huawei denies it is quitting Suffolk

BT's Adastral Park complex at Martlesham.

BT's Adastral Park complex at Martlesham. - Credit: Archant

Huawei has denied that it will be moving its research hub out of Suffolk, despite spending £37.5m on a new site for research and development in Cambridge.

The reception area of BT Adastral Park. Picture: Jessica Hill

The reception area of BT Adastral Park. Picture: Jessica Hill - Credit: Archant

Huawei, which is now the world’s second-largest smartphone company, ahead of Apple, is investing heavily in 5G technology.

It employs around 120 people at BT’s Adastral Park base in Martlesham, in two buildings - one for conducting pioneering ultra-high speed communications and optical research, and the other as a supplier for BT, which is Huawei’s biggest UK customer.

Huawei’s future in Suffolk seemed secure last year, when the company announced plans to spend a further £3bn on British technology and services over the next five years.

These plans included ramping up its research into IoT (internet of things), and the company was reported to be looking to expand again - sparking speculation that its base at Adastral Park could be chosen and thereby become Huawei’s flagship UK HQ.

BTs global research base, Adastral Park. Picture; ALAN COWIE

BTs global research base, Adastral Park. Picture; ALAN COWIE - Credit: Alan Cowie

But last week, those hopes were dashed when Huawei purchased a 511 acre site in Sawston, Cambridge, from US biotechnology firm Northwest Biotherapeutics (NWBio) for £37.5m, reportedly to use as an R&D campus.

As part of the deal, NWBio leased back an 87,000 sq ft manufacturing facility on a 20-year lease and retained ownership of 17 acres of land

Most Read

The site, which still needs to get planning permission, will be Huawei’s third facility in Cambridge.

In the same week, the East Anglian Daily Times received a phone call from a woman claiming to be a partner of one of Huawei’s employees in Ipswich, alleging that Huawei wanted to expand at Adastral Park, but was being denied permission to do so. “Huawei are now probably moving their staff in Ipswich to Cambridge, which means that investment and prospects for Suffolk will suffer,” she said. “There is no point in keeping the Adastral Park base for Huawei.”

BT - innovation pods, Adastral Park

BT - innovation pods, Adastral Park - Credit: Archant

But a Huawei spokesman denied this is the case. “We haven’t yet announced our plans for the new site in Cambridge - nothing has been decided yet,” he said. “Huawei is still committed to our facilities and employees in Martlesham at this time.”

He described Huawei’s photonics research lab at Adastral Park as being “all white coats and clean rooms”.

“It’s proper R&D, and since we bought it in 2012, we’ve expanded the centre and recruited more people. They have very specialised skills, and they are all based in Martlesham.”

But there is also the risk that Huawei may pull out of the UK altogether.

That’s because in the last few months, Huawei has been caught up in a political dispute over its potential for espionage.

Concern has been growing in the US, the UK, Canada, Australia and Germany that Huawei founder Ren Zhengfei, who was once a military technologist, might allow his technology to be used subversively by China’s ruling Communist Party.

Tension escalated further last month when Canada arrested Huawei chief financial officer Meng Wanzhou, who is also a daughter of Mr Zhengfei.

The head of the UK’s secret service, Alex Younger, recently stated that the UK had to make “some decisions” on Huawei, after close intelligence partners such as the US, New Zealand and Australia banned the company from future 5G mobile networks. Both Oxford University and Queen’s University Belfast have both said that they would “not pursue new funding opportunities” with Huawei.

Earlier this week, Huawei’s chairman Liang Hua, speaking at the World Economic Forum in Davis, warned that his company could move away from Western countries and transfer technology to countries “where we are welcomed” if it continues to face restrictions.

BT has also taken steps to protect its network in light of the political backlash against Huawei.

Last week, it confirmed that Huawei equipment was being removed from a communication system being developed for the UK’s emergency services.

But Huawei’s spokesman told EADT that this was a “complicated issue,” and accused the national media of “not covering themselves in glory” in the way it had been reported.

Huawei has been working with BT since 2005, and is one of the company’s key suppliers.

“We decided to put in place sensible policies on where we use Huawei,” explained BT’s group head of technology communications, Mike Witts.

In 2016, BT bought EE, which was then the UK’s biggest mobile operator. EE had been using Huawei in more intelligent parts of it’s network. So BT started a policy of aligning EE mobile infrastructure with BT’s existing policies, thereby taking Huawei out of the core 3G and 4G network.

“We limited them to the dumber parts of the network - the outer edges of the network, which involves lots of pieces of equipment converting radio signals to flashes of light, and cell towers,” explained Mr Witts.

“They were not allowed access to the core, intelligent part of the network which routes traffic about and does intelligence and control. That’s where personal data travels about. When something goes wrong there, it’s a significant problem.”