Huawei to build chip in Cambridge

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Huawei is to build a 400-person chip research and development factory outside Cambridge, in the heart of the UK’s silicon chip industry and just a 15-minute drive from the headquarters of Arm Holdings.

In the village of Sawston, about seven miles from Cambridge, Huawei plans to develop chips for use in broadband networks. Last week, its executives unveiled its plans to transform a derelict factory to residents in the hall of a secondary school.

Henk Koopmans, the chief executive of Huawei Technologies R&D UK, said he had negotiated the purchase of a 550-acre site that used to belong to Spicers, a stationery business that dates to 1796, for £37.5m last year. The facility, due to be operational by 2021, would create up to 400 jobs, Huawei executives told residents.

Huawei has plans to build a series of buildings, some up to 25m tall, including one on stilts where old warehouses and a sugar beet storage facility currently stand. The company urged residents at the meeting to name their price for their support. Huawei said it could easily fund a new medical centre, bus stop or whatever they wanted on an unused part of the site.

Huawei’s decision to make chips in Cambridge will create powerful competition for the region’s semiconductor talent. The company said it might eventually also develop artificial intelligence software there.

Arm Holdings, the UK’s largest technology company which was taken over by Japan’s SoftBank in 2016, has invested in bulking up its Cambridge workforce to alleviate concern over the £24bn takeover. Arm’s growth on the back of the smartphone sector, alongside the rise of other local players including CSR, now part of Qualcomm, has transformed Cambridge into a silicon heartland specialising in chip designs.

One Huawei executive suggested that the factory would create fewer bottlenecks than the old stationery plant.

“I can put a million of these chips in the boot of my car. Paper products are much more bulky to transport,” he said.

One local resident who attended the consultation, which displayed the plans over two days, suggested the site would be an ideal place for Huawei to spy on the UK government.

The Chinese company is in the eye of a global storm over 5G, the next generation of mobile internet, as the US lobbies for its equipment to be excluded from networks on security grounds. Huawei has denied that it helps the Chinese government to spy on mobile communications.

The meeting took place days after news leaked that Theresa May, the UK prime minister, would allow Huawei equipment to be used in new 5G networks, despite repeated warnings from US security services of the risks of letting a Chinese company into the national infrastructure.

The political debate on Huawei escalated after Gavin Williamson was sacked as UK defence secretary over the leak of details of the National Security Council meeting that discussed the Huawei issue.

Huawei employs thousands in the UK, including about 120 in Cambridge. It is expanding in the university town as part of a five-year £3bn investment plan for the UK that it announced alongside the prime minister in February last year. Huawei made no secret at the consultation of its readiness to target graduates from one the world’s top universities.

“We have a long-term collaboration with Cambridge university,” said a spokesman for the Chinese company, pointing to a five-year £25m co-operation and partnership with BT to fund research.