A lot has been said about Chinese giant Huawei’s new 5G network, the newest thing in mobile communication technology has caused large frictions between nations, the US going so far as to call for an outright global ban on the network, citing fears of cyber espionage.
But what really is the story behind 5G? What is it, should it be banned or are the US’s claims unfounded? Let’s dig a little deeper.
What is 5G?
5G is considerably complicated, there are plenty of specifics that we will get to, but for now let’s start with a simple summary.
5G is the next generation of mobile broadband that will eventually replace, or at least augment, your 4G LTE connection. 5G will provide exponentially faster upload as well as download speeds, and the time it takes your device to communicate with others will also decrease.
But how does 5G work? since it’s different from traditional 4G LTE it’s important to understand the little details, from spectrum bands to small cells.
5G operates on three different spectrum bands, and it will have quite the effect on your everyday use.
Low-band spectrum can also be described as sub 1GHz spectrum. It
Mid-band spectrum has other benefits such as providing faster coverage and lower latency than you’ll find on low-band, however it has considerably less penetration than the low-band spectrum. Peak speeds here are up to 1Gbps.
High-band spectrum is what is associated with 5G. High-band spectrum is the fastest and can offer peak speeds up to 10 Gbps and has very low latency. The major con however, is that it has low coverage area and building penetration is poor.
Verizon and AT&T are US companies using high-band spectrum for their 5G coverage, it will mostly use LTE while they start to build out nationwide networks. High-band spectrum as explained is great for covering large areas with high speed but lacks the penetration which is why they will rely on small cells.
Small cells are low-power base stations that cover small geographic areas. With small cells, carriers using mmWave for 5G can improve overall coverage area. Combined with Beamforming, small cells can provide incredibly fast coverage with low latency.
What’s the story?
Well, at the 2019 Mobile World Congress in Barcelona just the other week 5G is all that anyone could talk about and when we look at what it is it’s easy to see why. 5G to roll out across the nation, or indeed any nation, will require monumental levels of investment by the network operators. But the real question is who makes the kit? At the moment only a select few companies, namely Nokia, Ericsson, DoCoMo, Samsung, ZTE and Huawei.
What makes these companies interesting and what is causing the United States concern however is their countries of origin, respectively, Finland, Sweden, Japan, South Korea, China, China.
Huawei is the big boy of the group, the $100 billion giant is the worlds largest supplier of telecommunications equipment and the second largest smartphone manufacturer. This means you wouldn’t be surprised to find a lot of mobiles, usually Western, would have a lot of their kit within them. Or so you would think, but recently the United States has been attempting to put a stop the Huawei’s reach and halt their influence. The United States has banned it’s government agencies from using Huawei and ZTE equipment and has been pressuring her allies to do the same.
The reasoning behind the ban the US says is security concerns about “hidden backdoors”, meaning it would be in their opinion far too risky to have a Chinese company’s kit in key parts of American critical infrastructure. But this reasoning is being questioned, and Huawei filed a lawsuit against the US government over the ban as recent as last week.
Australia and New Zealand have been quite content to comply with the United States’ demands and have actively blocked the use of all Huawei’s equipment in their 5G networks, but other countries have been less than compliant.
Japan and Germany have led the rebellious stance, the German Data Commissioner even throwing a quip at the US by pointing out “the US itself once made sure that backdoor doors were built into Cisco hardware”.
But what about the US’s most trusted ally the United Kingdom? Well their approach is predictably cryptic. The National Cyber Security Centre which is part of GCHQ the UK’s major intelligence hub, says that any risk posed by involving Huawei’s kit in UK telecommunications projects can be “managed”. Its formal guidance to British mobile operators in essance is to keep Huawei out of the core of your 5G networks, but it’s perfectly fine to use its equipment at phone masts as part of the mix of suppliers.
This of course leads to the follow up question of who’s right and who’s wrong? is the US flexing it’s muscle and trying to bully other nations to comply because they simply don’t like the Chinese, or are they really looking out for them because of real serious security risks? It does remain to be seen.
At the moment however it appears that the Chinese giant has defeated the US, according to Reuters The European Union will not require its member countries to ban Huawei from their wireless networks but will in fact allow them to decide for themselves if they wish to ban them or not. European digital chief Andrus Ansip will present their decision on Tuesday.
Ansip will tell member states to use the tools provided under the EU directive on security of network and information systems, or NIS directive, for short, that was adopted in 2016 and the recently approved Cybersecurity Act.
While Europe decides it’s mobile telecommunications future for itself, it’s interesting what sort of precedent this sets for the future. The United States is certainly losing influence across the European continent and China has steadily been gaining ground for the last decade or so, with an increasingly isolationist United States it paves the way for a new superpower that will be there to stay.
What makes Huawei so strong?
How did Huawei manage to defeat the United States in the first place? The real reason lies in the industry itself, not a single major carrier came out in support of the US government’s ban, in fact most have been extremely positive about the Chinese giant’s innovation and product quality. According to WIPO’s director they filed more patents than anyone last year: “An all-time record by anyone.”
Combine having the utmost confidence in your product and the steely nerve to stand up to the US you get a polymerization of underdog and expert that has caused Huawei to ascend into greatness. So great in fact that nations that would normally have agreed with United States policy have outright gone against them. Whether it was a PR stunt that paid off, or whether they genuinely thought they could win from the start, it does not matter, the Chinese are dominating the 5G race. “We’ve not seen any evidence of backdoors into the network,” said Vodafone’s most senior lawyer in the UK “If the Americans have evidence, please put it out on the table.” And this succinctly summarised the American problem.
That being said, while the battle was won the war is not over, and while 5G deployments will move increasingly quickly with Huawei technology built in that won’t ever be removed, the ambition of dominating the North American continent will not come to fruition. The company did however announce multiple contracts at MWC and we can expect even more to come through this year.
Will Apple be toppled?
At this stage the real competitor for Huawei is Apple, they are the sole competitor and will likely remain so. It is also unlikely that they will be overtaken as the top dogs of the industry.
Even the CFO for Huawei favors Apple products over her own company’s, it was reported on Friday that when Ms Wanzhou was arrested in December on US charges relating to breaches of Iranian sanctions she was carrying according to court documents a MacBook Air, an Ipad Pro and an iPhone 7 Plus. While this might only appear to be a minor embarrassment for the Chinese behemoth it does have larger implications.
For example they have recently been accused of targeting Apple trade secrets and of actively punishing staff for owning and using Apple devices. One can be under the impression perhaps Meng Wanzhou’s use of Apple products was just ‘research‘.
After Ms Wanzhou’s arrest there was nationwide outcry and calls to boycott Apple products entirely, it was even reported by Nikkei Asian Review that “a machinery maker in Shenzhen, where Huawei is based, threatened to confiscate Apple devices from employees and fire those who did not comply… Shenzhen Yidaheng Technology said it would fine staffers who bought iPhones the equivalent amount of their device, while other companies threaten to withhold bonuses.”
The dramatic response was mirrored by Huawei themselves, in January it was reported that some of their employees were fined after a “Happy #2019” tweet from the company was tagged as being sent by ‘Twitter for iPhone’.
The hypocrisy of the CFO having Apple products herself will more than likely be lost on the population back home, and their domination of the Asian continent will continue unopposed. The people that won’t ignore it however will be those in the West.
With the fact that Huawei are banned in the United States and various other places Apple will continue to rein supreme in North America and likely with Huawei employees themselves, but the real question is that because they aren’t secure, or because they simply not like them.
In any case, whether or not the 5G network by Huawei is secure is unknown, what is known though is that their CFO does not trust them and the coming months will be very interesting indeed.
It’s difficult to say. Latest developments suggest China is refusing to wane the slightest amount of ground to America in the trade negotiations, instead electing to fully support their technology firms and give them even more backing.
Reuters citing a Financial Times report stated that “China is not conceding to U.S. demands to ease curbs on technology companies.” Which is worrying considering on March 28, Robert Lighthizer and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin are due to travel to China to begin new trade talks, in efforts to make a breakthrough that is increasingly unlikely.
The requests made by the United States for Beijing to stop discriminating against foreign cloud computing providers, to reduce limits on overseas data transfers and to relax a requirement for companies to store data locally have been completely ignored by China, something not seen on this level since the Soviet Union was at odds with the United States.
It is unlikely therefore that any trade deals will be able to be established, it is doubtful that any concessions will be made by Beijing and equally unlikely that Washington will make any. What will continue will be the status quo of America not accepting any Chinese influence on their continent and China continuing the dominance on theirs.
But it’s not just their
Coined the new Silk Road the Chinese investments will link China to Europe and give Beijing unprecedented geo-political and strategic influence. The investments have already funded various projects including roads, ports and even trains. Italy, in dire need of investment is more than content to accept the investments from Beijing, the investments however are not just free of ties but actually Chinese loans, of which will need to be paid back.
Similar to the Chinese movements in Africa, Italy may find itself in great debt to Beijing and fall prey to China’s demands in the future, at the moment however we are at a tentative stage in both technology and political global influence.
Huawei will remain the sole superpower of 5G for the time being, and perhaps we will never truly know whether the security risks are credible or not. What we do know, is that America is losing the war as it stands.