Huawei Security Concerns Front and Center as West Seeks 5G Alternatives

March 5, 2020 Updated: March 5, 2020

A bipartisan group of U.S. lawmakers, led by Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) and Sen. Ben Sasse (R-Neb.), is urging the UK Parliament to reconsider its decision to allow China’s Huawei a role in British 5G telecommunications networks amid a slew of security concerns.

Nearly two dozen lawmakers called on the United Kingdom to work closely with the United States and to take steps to mitigate the risks posed by Huawei, including that the regime in Beijing requires its companies to share its information with the Chinese Communist Party’s intelligence sector.

“Given the significant security, privacy, and economic threats posed by Huawei, we strongly urge the United Kingdom to revisit its recent decision,” they wrote in the letter, addressed to the House of Commons, on March 3.

There have been a number of recent hearings regarding China’s influence in 5G networks and “big tech” companies. The letter was sent ahead of a UK parliamentary debate on March 4 about Huawei’s involvement in Britain’s 5G network, while on the same day, a U.S. Senate subcommittee met about 5G supply chain security, and a Senate panel heard testimony about the relationship between “Big Tech and Beijing.”

Experts told The Epoch Times that recent talk about propping up Huawei competitors Nokia and Ericsson appears to be an increasingly viable option, saying 5G technology in the United States is highly vulnerable. They emphasized the need to implement security protocols and equipment from trusted vendors, saying it could be disastrous if the right action isn’t taken.

In January, UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson said Huawei will supply up to 35 percent of the country’s 5G communications infrastructure.

U.S. lawmakers said in the letter that, while banning Huawei from “core” 5G infrastructure could address some security risks, it would be “very challenging, if not impossible, to separate ‘core’ equipment from that considered to be on the periphery.”

Washington has repeatedly stated that Huawei—founded in 1987 by a former People’s Liberation Army engineer—is an extension of the Chinese regime and that it assists Chinese intelligence in stealing secrets.

Huawei, which denies the assertion, didn’t immediately respond to a request by the Epoch Times for comment.

5G Security and Huawei Competitors

“The unfortunate reality is that our networks have already been comprised by foreign adversaries,” Sen. Roger Wicker (R-Miss.), chairman of the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation, said at a March 4 hearing.

“We are seeing more reports that Huawei can covertly access mobile phone networks around the world,” he said in his opening remarks. “At the same time, some of our close allies are granting Huawei access to their communication systems. These are troubling developments.

“The absence of a viable and affordable American or European alternative for end-to-end telecommunications components … has enabled Huawei to increase its global influence.”

Multiple U.S. officials have emphasized the importance of finding an alternative to China’s Huawei and of developing potential partnerships with the telecom industry. Attorney General William Barr suggested recently that the United States and its allies should “actively consider” the possibility of backing Huawei’s two main overseas competitors, Nokia and Ericsson.

During the same hearing, ranking member Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.) described a recent attack on a power system that was brought down for more than 12 hours.

“It’s no longer just people searching around and looking at our power plants,” she said. “Now, actors are starting to bring what is essential services to a halt.”

High-level Nokia and Ericsson executives made the case in testimony that their technology is vastly more trustworthy than Huawei, which is currently the world’s biggest producer of telecom equipment. Britain has argued that excluding Huawei would have delayed its 5G rollout and cost consumers more.

Jason Boswell, head of security for network product solutions at Ericsson, testified that the company is leading the way on the 5G rollout, noting that they have deployed “65 percent of the 5G deployments in the U.S., including in rural America.”

Epoch Times Photo
Jason Boswell, Ericsson’s head of security for network product solutions, at a Senate hearing on 5G technology in Washington on March 4, 2020. (Charlotte Cuthbertson/The Epoch Times)

Boswell said the United States needs to develop a robust market of trusted suppliers and to focus on developing a skilled 5G workforce. In his testimony, he said the company just announced its first 5G equipment from its new $100 million smartphone factory in Texas.

He said that the company, since 2018, has executed a “supply chain regionalization strategy to place manufacturing and development as close to the customer as possible in order to reduce risks.” Boswell said that would also reduce regional disruptions and overdependence on one supplier or vendor.

“All of our software is scanned, verified, signed, and distributed in and from Sweden. That actually gives us a lot of tight control over our software development lifecycle and the traceability of that supply chain,” he said.

Mike Murphy, chief technology officer for the Americas at Nokia, testified that it’s “incorrect to suggest non-Chinese vendors cannot lead in 5G,” noting that the United States was the first country in the world to launch 5G networks. Of the U.S. equipment Nokia provides, none is manufactured in China, he added.

Epoch Times Photo
Mike Murphy, Nokia’s chief technology officer for the Americas, at a Senate hearing on 5G technology in Washington on March 4, 2020. (Charlotte Cuthbertson/The Epoch Times)

The Wall Street Journal reported that Huawei has grown with the help of $75 billion in state subsidies from the Chinese government, allowing the company to undercut many competitors on price.

“China’s made aggressive use of its development bank to support indigenous suppliers. Payment terms offered, while legal, are unavailable to competitors through commercial banks,” Murphy said.

The root of the problem is the Chinese Communist Party, said James Lewis, senior vice president and director of the Technology Policy Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, during testimony.

“5G is a symptom of a larger problem. We face a powerful opponent who is using espionage and predatory economic practices, including exploiting American patents, to gain advantage,” he said, referring to China.

Lewis said that the United States is currently positioned to take the lead over China in 5G. U.S. and Chinese deployments of 5G are roughly equivalent, with 57 cities in China and 50 in the United States.

Last week, Congress approved a $1 billion bill also known as “rip and replace” that would replace any equipment made by Huawei or ZTE used by rural telecom carriers in the United States. President Donald Trump still needs to sign the legislation, dubbed the “Secure and Trusted Communications Networks Act.” Administration officials have signaled their support for it, according to reports.

The bipartisan legislation would also remove any Huawei and ZTE equipment in networks currently used by a number of smaller U.S. carriers. The carriers had purchased the equipment years ago because of the low cost.

The United States, in 2018, banned Huawei technology from use by the government or any of its contractors, and in 2019, the company was added to the Department of Commerce’s Entity List, which effectively bars U.S. companies from selling components to Huawei without an export license.

Also at the hearing, Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.) previewed new legislation he plans to introduce this week to protect the trade policy of the United States, and ensure that “the security of our communications infrastructure is a clear negotiating objective of U.S. trade policy.”

“Unfair trade practices of communications equipment suppliers owned or controlled by a foreign government should not be tolerated,” he said. “Period.”

Huawei has never provided financial details to show they are an independent company not connected to the Chinese Communist Party, according to Prakash Sangam, founder and principal at Tantra Analyst, a research and consultancy firm focused on IP strategy, 5G, IoT (internet of things), and AI.

Sangam told The Epoch Times that governments are obviously “extremely cautious about allowing any foreign company thought to be controlled by a foreign totalitarian government to work on its infrastructure.”

John Boyd, principal of The Boyd Co., a firm providing location and management counsel to IT corporations globally told The Epoch Times that boosting 5G alternative providers such as Finland’s Nokia and Sweden’s Ericsson “would be a wise and timely investment, in my judgment.”

Sangam said one option to compete with Huawei would be encouraging major U.S. companies through financial and political incentives to start playing a key role in 5G. He said the current 5G supply chain could be at risk.

“Anytime a supply chain is so concentrated and many parts are outside of the control of some countries and probably under the influence of others, will be vulnerable,” Sangam said. “The vulnerability is not just because of supply chain … but the complexity of the technology and the huge risk-and-reward equation. 

Tyler Cooper, editor-in-chief of BroadbandNow, which tracks U.S. broadband serviceability data, including 5G, said it makes sense for the United States to be cautious about allowing one company to have an infrastructure monopoly on 5G deployment, “especially when we consider that China has used private business for political purposes in the past.”

Huawei was forced to pause production earlier this month due to the new coronavirus, but has since resumed. Cooper told The Epoch Times via email that the most likely path forward for the United States to advance in 5G “is a symbiosis between the public and private sectors, which we are already seeing take shape in the form of bills like the Utilizing Strategic Allied (USA) Telecommunications Act.” 

He said deploying 5G at scale requires the installation of “small cell” relays that don’t have a long transmission range. While this is fine in a dense urban environment, it becomes more challenging in rural communities, both economically and logistically. 

“We don’t want all of the benefits going to the major metro areas while rural Americans get left behind,” he said. “So we need to be incentivizing deployment in these lower-competition areas somehow.”

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