[This post has been authored by Sarthak Gupta of the Institute of Law, Nirma University.]
5G is the next big change awaiting mankind. It is not just an incremental change but rather represents a paradigm shift in technology. Among other things, it is going to have a huge impact on the national and economic security of countries. As a result, a safe and reliable framework for the development of 5G technology is very much critical for a nation’s ability to preserve its sovereignty.
Recently, the Government of India announced that all stakeholders including Huawei would be allowed for the trial of the 5G spectrum to be held later this year. There is a strong need to reconsider this move keeping in mind the substantial risk associated with a Chinese firm delivering critical infrastructure. Already, countries such as the U.S.A, Japan, Australia, Taiwan, New Zealand have banned Huawei from taking part in the 5G development in their respective countries, citing the company as a threat to national security.
Huawei: An Agent of Authoritarian Regimes
Huawei is the world’s leading telecommunications provider with $109 billion in annual sales, triple of what it was five years ago. It has achieved a remarkable amount of success in a short period of time; however, issues of trust continue to plague the company. Ownership of Huawei has been subject to scrutiny in recent years with fear of the Chinese Communist Party’s reach in the company causing considerable controversy. There are a number of reports claiming a close relation between Huawei and China’s military and intelligence establishments. It is suspected that in cases where sensitive state information is involved, the Chinese government may use hidden backdoors in Huawei technology to gain insight into the infrastructure of foreign powers.
Even if the company does not want to provide data to the Chinese government, it may be coerced into doing so due to China’s National Intelligence Law of 2017. Article 7 of the Intelligence Law provides that “any organization or citizen shall support, assist, and cooperate with state intelligence work according to the law.” Further, Article 14 grants intelligence agencies the authority to demand individuals or institutions to support them.
A Choice Between Cost and National Security
At present, there are six prominent companies that are capable of providing 5G technology. These are Nokia, Ericsson, Samsung, Intel, Qualcomm, and Huawei. Choosing any other company beyond Huawei would mean paying a significant amount of money for similar technology. India’s telecom industry, which ultimately has to bid for the spectrum on which 5G data will flow, is in poor financial health and is incapable of paying a heavy sum considering its the poor market conditions. The combined debt of the industry currently stands at five lakh crores, with revenue falling steadily every year.
Over the years, Huawei has been able to develop technology that is low cost and comparatively much affordable than its counterpart. However, choosing Huawei comes with its own set of consequences. Unlike previous 4G technology, 5G technology depends upon a complicated series of multiple-input/multiple-output antenna integrated with the hardware and software. According to experts, it is entirely possible for the systems providers to insert a ‘backdoor’ within the antennae which can stay undetected even by sophisticated equipment. Antennae and microwave equipment for Huawei’s 5G are produced by a Chinese state-owned company called China Electronics Technology Group Corporation, which further muddies the waters with regard to the company’s distance from the state.
The complex relationship between India and China raises the possibility that Huawei’s 5G network might be used to surveil Indian communications. China has constantly taken an anti-India stance at the global level and it has not spared any opportunity to create trouble at India’s borders.
As a result, India is left with two choices: we can either pay a significantly higher amount for adopting 5G networks produced by a company other than Huawei, or we can allow the Chinese company to build the critical infrastructure required despite the risk to national security.
At present, there is no Indian alternative to Huawei’s 5G technology. It may take two or three more years for India to develop 5G technology on its own, but perhaps the delay can be countenanced given that national and strategic interests are at stake. Four years back, when the government took the massive task of electrifying the entire nation. India needed 230 million LED bulbs; however, it was just producing 1 million units monthly. The task seemed impossible to achieve. However today, India’s LED scheme is a global case study. Innovative funding policies and Public-Private partnerships need to be created to navigate India through complex geopolitical battles. The future is fraught with complexities, however that is the price to be paid if India is to secure a seat at the high table.