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Huawei UK 5G choice: “Nothing short of madness”

America is leaning hard on Britain to reject Huawei as a 5G network builder. Meanwhile all the parties in New Zealand have gone quiet on the subject.

US officials told British ministers using Huawei in UK 5G networks puts intelligence sharing at risk. According to a report in the Guardian, the Americans said it would be “Nothing short of madness”.

Former Australian prime minister Malcolm Turnbull also warned the UK prime minister on the matter.

He says: “The real question is not looking for a smoking gun but asking whether this is a loaded gun and whether you want to have that risk.”

Threat seen in Australia

The threat identified by Australian security agencies was not Chinese intelligence interception but potential denial of network access.

Turnbull told The South China Morning Post: “Australia banned Huawei and ZTE from its 5G network as a hedge against adverse contingencies in case relations with China soured in the future.”

Elsewhere in a video he says:

“Capability takes a long time to put in place. Intent can change in a heartbeat, so, you have got to hedge and take into account the risk that intent can change in the years ahead.”

Malcolm Turnbull – Former Australian Prime Minister

Turnbull says Australia reached this decision without pressure from the US. That may be true, but it stretches credibility to suggest there was no lobbying. Even more so when you read the stories about US officials warning British ministers.

New Zealand may have also arrived at its own conclusions, but again, there will have been lobbying on both sides. And, at the very least, our politicians will be aware of The Australian decision.

Huawei locked out

For now, Huawei remains locked out of building a 5G network in New Zealand.

That was never going to affect Vodafone who built the first serious 5G network here. Nokia has been Vodafone’s long-term partner and has most of the 5G contracts.

It’s different for Spark and 2degrees. While 2degrees has announced nothing about its 5G plans, Spark has made a lot of noise over the last two years.

Until now, Huawei has been Spark’s main partner. The two built one of the world’s first 4.5G networks. For a long time it looked as if Huawei was on track to build Spark’s 5G network.

TICSA

That now seems remote. On paper the door is still open. The two companies could still get the necessary sign-off under the Telecommunications (Interception Capability and Security) Act 2013. This is betterknown as TICSA.

The GCSB blocked Spark’s original 2018 5G upgrade proposal under the Act. At the time it said the proposal posed a “significant network security risk.”

Ministers have been careful to avoid talking of an outright ban. They say the GCSB judges each TICSA application on its merits. Officially it just happens that the proposed application wasn’t up to the standard.

Spark and Huawei could return with a fresh proposal. At times it sounds as if the government expected this to happen. Yet the first application was more than a year ago and there has been no word of a fresh attempt.

Otherwise New Zealand’s government has said little more about the affair in public. It doesn’t need to.

White House claims Huawei spies

Other governments are making plenty of noise. The US and the White House has maintained all along that Huawei spies for the Chinese government. Huawei has been adamant that it does not.

As Turnbull makes clear, Australia remains cautious.

In Huawei’s defence there is no evidence of any wrong doing. Nor is there a Chinese law in place that obliges Huawei to act on the government’s behalf. Nor is China seen as a likely aggressor. As far as diplomats, exporters and importers are concerned we are all the best of friends.

Yet, as Turnbull makes clear, there doesn’t need to be evidence of spying for there to be a potential future risk. Nor does there need to be a change in Chinese law. If tensions between the West and China ramp up, China could put Huawei under pressure.

As Turnbull points out, circumstances can change fast. Building a network, or an alternative network takes a lot of time and money. His point is not choosing Huawei is prudent.

Decision time in London

It’s not clear yet which way the UK will jump. It could still decide to go ahead with Huawei. Huawei’s prices are cheaper than rival network hardware companies.1 Huawei hardware is often the better choice for reasons other than money.

The problem the UK faces is much the same as the one facing New Zealand. Allow Huawei and there will be a diplomatic fall-out with the US. Shut Huawei out and China will take offence. There’s no fence sitting, nations are being forced to choose one or the other.

China has not helped matters. Since the question first arose, it has flexed its muscle in ways that alarm overseas observers. Hong Kong is the most obvious example.

One way or another New Zealand appears to have made a decision. Spark is pushing ahead with alternatives to Huawei with its 5G projects.

It will be interesting to see if New Zealand’s position changes if the UK give Huawei the green light. It may not. Yet a decision in Huawei’s favour will give the company ammunition in future New Zealand discussions.

A story unfolding on the other side of the world could yet have implications here.


  1. Some argue the Chinese government subsidises the business. If true, that is more, not less, reason to be wary. ↩︎

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