Business Technology

Tuesday 19 March 2019

Adrian Weckler: 'Huawei Barcelona battle looms'

Huawei has been at the centre of a row over whether its next generation 5G mobile infrastructure represents a security risk for western countries.
Huawei has been at the centre of a row over whether its next generation 5G mobile infrastructure represents a security risk for western countries.
Adrian Weckler

Adrian Weckler

Tomorrow, the world's most important communications conference kicks off in Barcelona. But 2019's Mobile World Conference will not be dominated by Samsung's new folding phone, Apple's augmented reality plans or mobile broadband.

Instead, the big story is Huawei. For those who haven't been following it, the Chinese telecommunications company has been at the centre of a row over whether its next generation 5G mobile infrastructure represents a security risk for western countries.

A rump of defence hawks, mainly US-based, have been arguing that the company's ties with Chinese authorities are too tight. Thus, Beijing might have too much control over critical communications systems that might control our cars and electricity grids, as well as our mobile phones. (The difference between 4G and 5G is that the former is about fast data speeds while the latter is about connecting millions of previously standalone machines and devices.) Up until a few weeks ago, this anti-Huawei side were looking strong. Led by some in the US intelligence community and a few American government officials, they had convinced Australian and New Zealand authorities - as well as US mobile phone carriers - to block any new deployment of Huawei equipment in critical 5G infrastructure.

It appeared that British operators were considering a similar course, with BT reportedly marginalising Huawei kit to "non-core" functions.

But the last seven days have seen the tide turn in favour of Huawei.

A number of senior European countries - which are key as to whether the US push becomes a global one - look to have rejected the thrust of security fears over deploying the Chinese company's gear in 5G networks. German chancellor Angela Merkel's cabinet, briefed by German security sources, has reportedly dismissed US concerns.

Critically, the British government - America's strongest ally on issues such as this - also appears to have come to a similar conclusion as the Germans. UK Prime Minister Theresa May's administration will have done so after being briefed by GCHQ, which has had a good look at Huawei's systems and which is itself no debutante when it comes to matters of potential data collection or spying.

But the most surprising intervention appears to have come from the US's own President Donald Trump. Instead of railing about the dangers of using Huawei kit in 5G networks as everyone might expect, Trump tweeted that Americans should instead focus on competing with leading 5G network competitors, not "blocking" them.

"American companies must step up their efforts or get left behind," he tweeted. "I want the United States to win through competition, not by blocking out currently more advanced technologies."

Most commentators interpreted this as a distinct softening from the US on the issue. By focusing on competition rather than security, Trump appeared to be taking a very different approach to the most talked-about issue in the current 5G rollout.

The timing of these remarks was interesting. They came a few days after the founder of Huawei, Ren Zhengfei, told the BBC that there is "no way the US can crush" Huawei. "The world cannot leave us because we are more advanced. Even if they persuade more countries not to use us temporarily, we can always scale things down a bit."

The Huawei founder has personal matters at stake in this. His daughter, Meng Wanzhou, has been arrested on foot of a US warrant, with American authorities pursuing criminal charges that include money laundering and stealing trade secrets.

The Huawei founder said that he believes these are "politically motivated" charges, something US authorities deny.

So what's actually going on? Is Huawei a risk to security for countries in Europe? Is it a risk to use in Ireland?

I've asked almost every major telecoms operator in Ireland this question over the last number of months, given that most either use or are planning to use some Huawei equipment as part of their networks. Each carrier has largely said the same thing: Huawei's technology is either on par or substantially ahead of rivals when it comes to 5G networks. As such, they can't afford not to use it. As for security, there's nothing they can detect at their level of due diligence.

"We're very confident in Huawei as a partner, they're in every network in Ireland," Eir chief executive Carolan Lennon said the week before last when launching Eir's new fibre-to-the-home network. Imagine Communications boss Sean Bolger said something similar at his company's wireless broadband launch later that week.

Obviously, this doesn't disprove what US administration figures are alleging, which is that Chinese corporate customs overly defer toward Chinese state requests for security access and controls.

But it does suggest that big telecoms companies don't have a problem with Huawei's equipment. Increasingly, it looks like European governments and security agencies agree.

All of this might create trouble for some international security arrangements, such as the so-called 'Five Eyes' alliance between the US, UK, Canada, Australia and New Zealand.

Last week, the chief executive of the UK's National Cyber Security Centre, Ciaran Martin, made a speech in Brussels where he indicated that Britain might control any risk from working with Huawei's equipment in the country's communications networks.

If the UK resists US pressure on Huawei, there is little chance that any other European country will accede to American lobbying on the issue either.

In theory, that could cause a schism in security relations between the US and the UK. But will it? Are Trump's remarks an indication that when it actually comes to the wire, the US may soften its hard line approach on Huawei?

This is the impression that is in the ascendancy on the eve of the biggest deal-making conference in the communications world, Mobile World Congress. This is the last major event before 5G network plans are finalised and rolled out. It's probably the last shot that the Americans have of convincing allies to pare back on their plans to install Chinese infrastructure.

Sunday Indo Business

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