Ever since it was reported that the NZ government security agency (GCSB) had ‘knocked back’ a proposal from Spark for Huawei from playing a part in their 5G rollout, our headlines have regularly told the story of fallout in our relationship with China. This has raised the questions about what exactly is the issue with Huawei….is it truly a national security threat or is it more about global politics? So what’s the deal with Huawei?
The national security issue
While specific detail hasn’t been given, the reason for the ban has been cited as national security. But with no detail on the specifics, it is hard to validate if it is a real threat or a theoretical threat. It is no secret that cyber attacks by nation-states are on the rise and that it is a modern tool of warfare - that threat may be very real, but not specific. Here are some other considerations to throw in the mix:
- Huawei equipment is already used in a large portion of NZ’s telco infrastructure including mobile networks, UFB networks and telco cores. If there is a specific threat from Huawei, it begs the question, what risk does the existing infrastructure carry? Did I mention they have around 300 staff in NZ and have a Network Operations Centre that actually runs portions of these networks?
- Huawei is used in telco networks in the UK, where Huawei fund a lab that allows equipment to be tested by the UK - a model they have proposed in NZ. It has also been announced that Huawei has been cleared to participate in the UK’s 5G rollout as the risks are deemed manageable.
- Even if Huawei isn’t in the core of our telco networks, it is still used at the edge in a lot of cases. Either as a broadband modem provided by ISPs or directly by consumers as mobile phones and tablets
- If we care about the sovereignty of our national security, other major network vendors carry their own set of risks - just revisit the Snowden leaks…. We would need to adopt a zero trust model, where we independently test, validate and monitor ANY vendors network equipment, not just focus on one.
The Intellectual property issue
Another issue cited with Huawei is whether they have breached the intellectual property of competitors. This is actually a much more complex issue than it may appear on the surface. Here’s why:
- Search for “Apple lawsuit” and sift through the results. Apple vs Samsung. Samsung vs Apple. Apple vs Qualcomm. Think back to Microsoft vs Apple, and the Xerox “Desktop”. Questions around intellectual property are not exclusive to Huawei, and in fact surround some of the largest tech firms on the planet. The arguments are not always straightforward. In fact they are almost always nuanced, with debate about what is truly unique ideas, and often who thought of it first.
- The laws around patents and intellectual property are not always used in a positive sense. Think of patent trolls, and companies who simply procure patents with no intention of using or developing the intellectual property but instead punitive licensing of IP to other companies trying to build products.
- IP laws are not always universally accepted. The concept that an idea is protected and can be ‘owned’ is not one that is subscribed to by all. To some extent it could also be considered absurdly abstract, not to mention harmful towards competition and innovation.
The point isn’t to justify breaches or theft of intellectual property, but highlight that this is not an issue exclusive to Huawei nor always a straightforward one of one party being right, and one being in the wrong.
The Huawei Opportunity
Why is the Huawei ‘ban’ such a big issue? Why were Spark talking about them as if they were in the box seat for their 5G rollout? Frankly they are very compelling as a network vendor. Economically. Technologically. Support-wise. They are strong in all these areas. I was fortunate enough to visit Huawei in China around 4 years ago which helped form my opinion on Huawei’s capability. Does this make me less objective on these issues? Maybe. I don’t know to be honest… Of course I’d like to think not. However, what it did give me was a different perspective to many. The first, and most resounding thing, to hit me about Huawei was their scale. It is deep and it is wide. The amount of products this company produces is insane. How many companies produce consumer devices, to core network equipment, to transmission equipment. That’s before you add in telephony, smart cities software, surveillance, data centre hardware, servers, etc. etc. etc. In simple numbers, Huawei claim 180,000 employees worldwide. Cisco, the US competitor they are often compared with, have around 74,000. What Huawei offer with this scale is an economic benefit that cannot be overlooked. It is in particularly important for a 5G rollout which requires a lot more equipment than 4G due to the density of mobile towers. The question worth asking is whether excluding Huawei would give us second class (or less affordable) infrastructure that is required to support what is arguably the biggest shift in technology we have seen in a long time - potentially ever. This is about the interconnectedness of devices, not people, and will have applications that become interwoven in all manners of our daily lives. If the answer is “yes”, this would give us second class infrastructure, then you want to be damn sure you are making the decision for the right reasons.
Currently we have unanswered questions and not a lot of clarity about why we may limit the use of (more) Huawei equipment in our networks, yet the UK does not perceive the same level of risk. It may be unfair to expect absolute transparency on subjects of national security, but I’m not sure it would be unfair to want assurances that it is based upon a credible threat, not upon politics. After all, politics and alliances are things we vote upon, while national security decisions become operational matters. The risks of having networks that will run our core infrastructure - power systems, media, public transport - isn’t one to be taken likely, but where are lines drawn? Do we only trust network equipment from countries with whom we have ‘suitable’ alliances? And what if those alliances change…