By Anand Benegal*
5G connectivity is an important telecommunications upgrade which is expected to propel digital revolution in India. At present, however, the Indian government’s committee on 5G technology remains split on the issue of allowing Huawei’s participation in the upcoming trials. The broad consensus is that safeguards are needed before Huawei is allowed to participate. Research on 5G and policies made by other countries with regard to Huawei’s participation suggest that broadly, India has three options: a) a complete ban on Huawei; b) a carte blanche to Huawei; and c) a middle ground which would involve limiting and regulating the use of Huawei gear and/or implementing substantial testing and regulatory oversight.
A technical and legal review of the merits and de-merits of these options combined with capacity related assessments indicate that a middle ground might be the most feasible for India on Huawei.
A Complete Ban
5G possesses wide-ranging social and technological implications to the ‘Internet of Things’ (IoT) ecosystem (which extends internet connectivity to objects used in everyday life), and is identified as a key driver for future economic development. The technology is more closely interlinked than 4G, and therefore some countries like the US and Australia believe that the line separating “core” and ”non-core” network components becomes considerably blurred. These countries hold that any 5G telecom equipment manufactured by Huawei poses a very high national security risk.
The US, Australia, Japan, and New Zealand are countries that have currently banned Huawei from their 5G developments. In India, however, the inexpensive nature of Huawei equipment means that Indian telecom operators are likelier to prefer the option of using its equipment. Moreover, a ban represents a surface-level solution to the broader issue of establishing norms and policies that enhance telecom network security.
A Carte Blanche
An alternative policy option is to give Huawei a free pass in developing core and non-core aspects of the 5G network. This policy is the least desirable one, because of the security risks posed by the company’s participation. Though Huawei has indicated a willingness to sign a “no back door” pact with India, the company’s links with the Chinese government are well known, and consequently, there may not be a guarantee of this pact being honoured, irrespective of whether Huawei itself intends to meet its commitments. The Communist Party of China maintains a branch inside Huawei, and Chinese domestic security laws can be invoked to ensure compliance for the purpose of intelligence sharing. In such a scenario, Huawei would likely cooperate. After all, state-backed finance is the major factor in how Huawei was able to keep costs lower than competitors such as Nokia and Ericsson.
Another related issue pertains to security negligence concerns. A cyber security evaluation report by a UK government oversight board highlighted substantial defects in software engineering and cyber security processes. A US IoT security firm too published an account of the extensive flaws inherent in Huawei firmware. So far, India’s DoT has not published similar assessments of Huawei, or of other potential 5G vendors. Such assessments should be carried out and published soon, to enhance awareness into telecom risks, and of vendors’ strengths and weaknesses.
A Middle Ground
A middle ground option involves allowing the use of Huawei gear for non-core components whilst using other companies’ gear for core components, and/or implementing safeguards and comprehensive regulatory oversight. Huawei is not the only option for core 5G technology. Ericsson, Nokia, Cisco, and Samsung are some readily available alternatives. However, Huawei’s equipment is generally cheaper and is therefore often preferred by telecom operators.
However, the success of the middle ground strategy would rely heavily on India’s technical expertise and capacity for identifying cyber risk and recognising potential loopholes across the network chain. Experts consider 5G to be more insecure than 4G, and therefore, it is necessary for India to be able to recognise the security flaws in this technology. Although telecom operators might prefer using Huawei equipment due to its lower costs, the extent to which this would be a sound option would depend on the country’s ability to manage and mitigate network risk.
India’s recent effort to roll out the “Mandatory Testing and Certification of Telecom Equipments” (MTCTE) policy for mandatory pre-use testing and certification of telecom equipment indicates an inclination towards enhancing indigenous testing and regulatory capacity. Although the policy is currently in its early days, it is expected that the MTCTE’s vision is to eventually test and certify all telecommunications equipment, from network equipment down to user devices.
India’s policy direction seems aligned with those of France and the UK. In July 2019, France legislated in favour of implementing safeguards in core technology and an extensive review of components and gear. In its analysis of this legislation, a Bloombergreport found that these tests “may be tantamount to suppliers handing over industrial secrets” for 5G bidding eligibility. In April 2019, the UK announced that it will use Huawei equipment for non-core components whilst blocking its use for core technology. Meanwhile, the EU—with whom India is engaging to receive recommendations and guidance regarding 5G security—seems to be moving towards the middle ground policy as well. For instance, in May 2019, Dutch telecom carrier KPN stated that it will use Huawei antennae and base stations but will select a Western vendor to supply its network “core” equipment.
At present, it appears that neither a complete ban on, nor a carte blanche to, Huawei equipment are feasible options. However, if India deems that Huawei telecom equipment is altogether unsafe, it could find a complete ban to be a logical option. That being said, extensively testing and regulating 5G equipment, isolating core and non-core network components, and implementing oversight on Huawei gear, could help India keep costs and network risks low. More importantly, the process could also catalyse India’s effort to enhance its telecom security capacities considerably.
*Anand Benegal is a Research Intern at IPCS’ China Research Programme.