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Huawei and the 5G Conundrum

Telecommunications providers around the world are gearing up for 5G, the latest generation of cellular mobile communications networks that will allow for near-instantaneous connectivity, provide higher data rates, and accommodate new applications and technologies. Citing national security concerns, United States government has been lobbying governments around the world to build out 5G networks without using networking equipment from Chinese telecommunications behemoth Huawei Technologies.

The 5G stakes are high. With high data rates and low latency necessary to support applications such as virtual reality and augmented reality, and new cloud and virtualization technologies such as software-defined networking and network functions virtualization, 5G is expected to transform modern communications. Whoever’s equipment gets used to upgrade the communications infrastructure will influence—and control—how and where the world’s data travels across networks. For more than a year, various U.S. officials have lobbed accusations that Huawei was an untrusted supplier and providers using Huawei equipment risked giving the Chinese government the ability to control parts of the world’s communications networks. Huawei is arguably the largest telecommunications equipment company in the world, and makes gear for practically every step in the network—the switches, gateways, routers, and bridges—that connect user devices to data centers hosting applications and content.

U.S. officials have cited concerns—but have not publicly shown evidence—that Huawei’s networking gear contained backdoors giving the Chinese government access to how and where the world’s data gets routed. They also noted that under China’s National Intelligence Law, Chinese companies such as Huawei are required to cooperate with Chinese intelligence services.

Earlier in the year, FBI director Christopher Wray said there were national security risks to relying on a Chinese telecommunications company for American networks. “As Americans, we should all be concerned by the potential for any company beholden to a foreign government—especially one that doesn’t share our values—to burrow into the American telecommunications market. That kind of access could give a foreign government the capacity to maliciously modify or steal information, conduct undetected espionage, or exert pressure or control,” Wray said.

Asking for Evidence

Wray is correct that it would be a bad idea to have a government be able to have backdoors into the networks, but it’s not clear what evidence exists for claiming Huawei is “beholden” to the government to make its equipment suspect. Huawei Chairman Ken Hu asked that any evidence against the company be made public, noting the company's "record on security is clean."

"If you have proof and evidence, it should be made public, maybe not to the general public, not to Huawei. But at the very least, it should be made known to telecom operators, because it's telecom operators who are going to buy from Huawei," Hu said.

"Huawei is an independent business organisation. When it comes to cybersecurity and privacy protection, we are committed to siding with our customers … neither Huawei, nor I personally, have ever received any requests from any government to provide improper information," said Huawei founder Ren Zhengfei. Ren also said he would "definitely refuse" if the government ever asked the company for data.

Banning Has a Price

The U.S. passed a law in 2018 barring federal agencies from using Huawei and ZTE technology, and there are reports the White House is weighing an executive order to ban Chinese telecommunications gear from all U.S. networks. While Australiia has banned Huawei 5G equpment and New Zealand its limiting use, European countries have pushed back on U.S. officials.

Both the United Kingdom and Germany have said they cannot find any evidence of a spying program in Huawei equipment. Huawei has agreed to allow British security specialists to scrutinise its hardware and software at its Huawei Cyber Security Evaluation Centre, and has a similar agreement with Germany. The United Kingdom acknowledged China as a threat, but said it will work with Huawei to fix potential issues that its review of the company's source code uncovered. Ciaran Martin, the CEO of the U.K. National Cyber Security Centre, said the agency would be able to handle the challenges involved in monitoring suppliers who many not be considered trustworthy.

The technology gap is also a serious concern. Experts believe Huawei is ahead of European counterparts in terms of developing 5G equipment and many operators are relying on Huawei to build out their 5G networks. A de-facto ban would be a considerable setback for Europe’s efforts to stay competitive. Deutsche Telekom said that Europe could fall behind China and the United States by as much as two years if companies did not use Huawei equipment for its 5G deployments, according to Reuters.

It's not just Europe. U.S. carriers in rural areas are resisting the idea of an executive order banning Huawei outright since their networks are heavily dependant on Huawei equipment. The FCC previously considered witholding subsidies to companies considering using Huawei equipment in its 5G rollouts, but some reports suggest it is walking back on that plan.

“Going with an untrusted supplier like Huawei or ZTE [another Chinese telecomm] will have all sorts of ramifications for your national security,” a US State Department official said while in Brussels to speak with various European Union officials, according to a recent AFP report. A delegation of senior officials from the Departments of State, Defense, and Commerce at this week's the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona, Spain, to speak out against Huawei—one of the event’s main sponsors.

The first phase of 5G specifications is expected to completed by April to accommodate early commercial deployments. The second phase is expected by April 2020. IDC called 2019 a “seminal year” in the mobile industry. Governments have to decide quickly whether or not they are confident enough in Huawei's denials to include the equipment within critical infrastructure, or if they are going to accept the potential delays to rolling out 5G.