There’s a fine line between a fudge and a workable compromise. In Britain’s handling of Huawei Technologies Co., Prime Minister Boris Johnson has just about managed to secure the latter.
The U.K. has brushed off the U.S.’s complaints and decided to allow its telecoms operators to install equipment made by “high-risk vendors” — read: Huawei — in their networks. But the government drew a line, excluding it outright from sensitive core parts of the network and capping its gear’s presence in the non-sensitive parts at 35% of the total.
Outwardly, President Donald Trump won’t like the solution. But if the U.S.’s loudest protestations about security concerns were genuine, and not in fact an effort to stymie Chinese economic influence, then it should be able to stomach the compromise. American concern has focused on the risk of Huawei building backdoors into networks that can be readily exploited by Chinese state-sponsored actors. After all, China passed a law in 2017 obliging companies to assist the state with espionage efforts. And while no such backdoors have yet been found, that isn’t proof that they don’t exist.
But at the same time, a great deal of capital, both political and actual, has been invested in the promise of fifth-generation networks. Globally, revenue from the so-called Internet of Things will quadruple to $1.1 trillion by 2025, industry body the GSMA estimates. With about a third of the $50 billion global telecoms equipment market, Huawei has become the biggest player, with some of the best technology and lowest prices. Banning it would have ramifications for the pace of the 5G rollout.
That is why the U.K. approach is a pragmatic one. It’s allowing Huawei products into the radio-access network — essentially the antenna and base stations — but keeping it out of the core: the server hubs that direct data around the network. Network security focuses on three pillars: confidentiality, integrity and availability. The first one focuses on ensuring that bad actors can’t see your data. The second is about making sure no-one is altering data during transmission. And the third is about guaranteeing network access when it’s needed.
By those criteria, the U.K. decision seems to eliminate most, though not all, of the risk. If there are indeed backdoors into the parts of the network using Huawei gear, then they will likely only have access to data from that 35% of the network using it. It should still be possible to keep the equipment out of sensitive networks, such as those running the power grids and police communications. Indeed, France won’t let operators use Huawei antenna in Toulouse, for instance, where the airplane giant Airbus SA is based. BT Group Plc was already stripping Huawei gear out of its existing core networks. It likely would have been hard to secure lucrative government contracts without doing so.
At any rate, telecommunications firms’ cybersecurity efforts will be on heightened alert where the slice of their operations that do still contain Huawei products is concerned. It might be easier to spot disturbing anomalies. If a base station is siphoning off gobs of data to somewhere in Asia, that will be more noteworthy than if it’s coming from the core network. As the distinction between core and edge networks blurs in the move toward full 5G, Huawei’s role must be managed even more carefully.
Johnson had three sets of interests to navigate: the Americans threatened to cut off intelligence sharing with Britain in response; China’s ambassador warned a Huawei ban would have “substantial” repercussions for investment in the U.K.; and Britain’s own network operators — Vodafone Group Plc., BT, O2 (part of Spain’s Telefonica SA) and Three (owned by Hong Kong-based CK Hutchison Holdings Ltd.) — also had their say.
The stakes are higher for these companies than for their U.S. peers, who are already prevented from using almost any Huawei products. That’s because they’re poorer. AT&T Inc. and Verizon Communications Inc. enjoy average revenue per customer of close to $50 a month. In the U.K., Vodafone gets just 14 pounds ($18.22), according to Bloomberg Intelligence.
British carriers are therefore much more cost-sensitive. Knocking Huawei out of the running in the radio-access network would have left a duopoly of Nokia Oyj and Ericsson AB, giving the suppliers a huge amount of pricing power. Samsung Electronics Co. is accelerating into the industry, but its gear is often even pricier. And U.S. suppliers such as Juniper Networks Inc. and Cisco Systems Inc. compete more effectively in the core network.
The European Union looks set to issue guidelines that imitate the U.K. approach. The U.S. may not like it, but Johnson was never going to keep everyone happy.-Bloomberg
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