EU at the crossroads over Huawei’s bid for 5G networks

Sunilchandra Dal
Sunday, 31 March 2019

Chinese President Xi Jinping’s visit to Italy has given a boost to his pet project of Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).

Chinese President Xi Jinping’s visit to Italy has given a boost to his pet project of Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). Italy has become the first developed economy to approve of the programme. Deals worth €2.5bn ($2.8bn) were signed during Xi’s visit. This is a victory for China in its tussle with the United States, which is opposed to the BRI. This development is also likely to help Chinese company Huawei Technologies Co Ltd’s bid for 5G contracts in Europe.

The US has banned its federal agencies from using Huawei products. The US says Huawei is likely to steal sensitive data and pass it on to the Chinese government and hence, Huawei poses a grave security risk. The US also does not want European countries to award 5G contracts to Huawei.
 
Huawei has stated it would never share data with the Chinese government. However, experts say Chinese law makes it mandatory for Chinese firms to hand over any data required by the government on grounds of national security. If this is correct, Huawei would be forced to hand over data, if the Chinese government asks for it.

Interestingly, Huawei has not said that obtaining sensitive data is impossible through 5G technology. This would mean that collecting sensitive data through 5G networks is possible and so there are security implications. 

According to media reports, some experts in the European Union have tested 4G technology and not found any attempt to steal sensitive data. But they also say that only one software update is sufficient to make it possible in the future. 

A rift between the traditional allies, the US and the EU is possible if the latter opts for Huawei’s 5G networks. The US has said it would not be willing to share sensitive information with countries which chose to deal with Huawei. 

Both Germany and Italy seem to be unwilling to follow the line of thinking followed by the United States. Dealing with Huawei is attractive for European countries because it is already there and also it offers technology at a lower price.

However, there could be another reason why European countries are tilting towards Huawei. According to CNBC, AT&T CEO Randall Stephenson claimed that Huawei is making it difficult for European carriers to drop Huawei as the supplier as the company is an important part of their 4G networks. “If you have deployed Huawei as your 4G network, Huawei is not allowing interoperability to 5G —meaning if you are 4G, you are stuck with Huawei for 5G,” Stephenson told the media.

He said the biggest risk is not that the Chinese government may steal sensitive data, but that 5G will be a critical infrastructure and so governments should be cautious about who the vendors are.

Critical 5G infrastructure includes the next-generation wireless networking system that experts believe will transform connectivity for self-driving cars, factory automation and other applications. According to vox.com, by 2024, around 40 per cent of the world’’s population and 22 billion devices, from cars to cellphones to traffic lights, will be on the 5G network. It is said to be 100 times faster than the 4G technology and empower autonomous vehicles and robots apart from speeding up internet speed. 

The implications are even more important if we consider the situation of a monopoly by the company which offers the 5G network. Once the monopoly is set up, all attendant evils may follow. Prices may shoot up and sensitive data may flow into the hands of a foreign government. Thus it is necessary to avoid a monopoly by Huawei or any other company. Ensuring that several players are involved seems to be the safest bet. The European countries are yet to take a final decision. But many aspects of the situation apply to India. Thus, India should avoid a monopoly on 5G networks by any company.

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