Posted on September 9, 2020
Authored by Nishant Mishra*
Recently, India banned 59 Chinese apps including WeChat, Hello, and TikTok as reported earlier here. This ban took place on the grounds of protecting the country’s “sovereignty and security”. On September 2, 2020, the government decided to further ban 118 more apps including the popular gaming app “PUBG” to the disappointment of many. It may also ban Huawei from taking part in the 5G trials. Lately, several western countries have also put restrictions on Huawei. This article discusses the importance of 5G, security threats from Huawei, and the path ahead for India.
5G – The Next Generation Mobile Network
5G is the next generation of cellular technology. Theoretically, 5G can reach a peak speed of 20 Gbps. To put into context, the peak speed of 4G is just 1 Gbps. Another key difference between them is the lower latency period which is just 5 milliseconds for 5G. Latency is the time that passes from the moment information is sent from a device until it can be used by the receiver. Lower latency helps in many real-time tasks such as controlling driverless cars and performing remote surgeries through medical robots which are impossible through 4G and LTE without any delay. 5G will increase the available bandwidth which will lead to a significant increase in the amount of data transmitted. It also promises extended battery life as the 5G network will see a 90% reduction in network energy usage which can lead up to 10 years’ worth of battery life for low power IoT devices. High speed and low latency of 5G networks will help in large amounts of data transmission which will lead to better gaming and video streaming experience. It could become possible to watch 4K, 8K videos without any buffering. “Augmented Reality” (“AR”) and “Virtual Reality” (“VR”) require a lot of data processing but thanks to 5G it will be much easier to experience AR/VR on our mobile apps. It will revolutionize the field of advertisement as advertisers could create more engaging advertisements and can deliver it to their target audience more accurately. However, most importantly it will revolutionize the internet of things (“IoT”). There are billions of IoT devices around the world that are connected to the internet and collecting and sharing data. They range from light bulbs which can be controlled by your smartphones to smart cities having sensors to understand and control climate. 5G promises higher bandwidth and ultra-reliable, low-latency communication which is needed for the next generation of IoT devices such as wireless smart video surveillance, smart cars, smart homes, and real-time remote monitoring in industries and manufacturing units. 5G technology will sit at the centre of the fourth industrial revolution (“4IR”). However, this technology is still evolving. The complexity of 5G technology is such that it needs highly specialized world-class expertise and equipment for its various components along with chip designers, technology providers, and system integrators. The important players in the field of 5G are Ericsson, Samsung, Nokia, Cisco, etc. However, one name that has been an issue of much controversy is that of Huawei’s.
Huawei – A Hidden Threat?
Huawei is the world’s 2nd largest smartphone-manufacturer after Samsung and as well as the world’s 2nd largest telecommunications equipment manufacturer. It recorded revenue of $64.88 billion in the 1st half of 2020. It is present in 170 countries including India. It holds the highest number of 5G patents and makes the highest number of technical contributions to the 5G standard. It has achieved all these while maintaining its highly competitive price.
Despite all this, it has remained a source of controversy for the past few years. On 16th May 2019 the USA added Huawei to the ‘Entity List of the US Department of Commerce‘ (US Bureau of Industry and Security). The US Department of Commerce barred American companies from installing the foreign-made telecom equipment which it deemed a national security threat. It also made it difficult for American companies to sell and transfer their technology to Huawei by mandating a license to do so. The US in total has laid 23 charges against the company. US intelligence alleges Huawei has been financed by the Chinese Government and has close links with the People’s Liberation Army (“PLA”) and Chinese security agencies and they are using it to expand their spying ability which threatens the US’s National Security. There are several allegations against Huawei regarding the theft of intellectual property and trade secrets. It is also accused of having business ties with Iran and North Korea, both of which are under US economic sanctions. Huawei denies all these allegations. However, the links between Huawei and the Chinese government can not be denied. Several officials of the Communist Party of China (“CPC”) are known to participate in the policymaking for Chinese Tech firms. The CPC also has cells established in all large Chinese firms, including Huawei. However, the most problematic of all is China’s National Intelligence Law which mandates all Chinese companies and individuals to support China’s intelligence agencies. Keeping the above factors into consideration, many countries such as Australia, New Zealand, Japan, Taiwan have already banned Huawei.
The Way Forward For India
Keeping the potential of 5G in mind, it has been classified as ‘Critical Infrastructure’. Critical infrastructure are those physical systems, cyber systems, and assets that are so vital to a country that their destruction would have an adverse impact on a country’s physical and economic security as well as public health and safety. With its immense benefits5G technology may wreak havoc if controlled by hostile powers. The amount of destruction and loss of life that will occur due to distorted signals sent to smart-cars, disruption of communication systems of airlines and railways, or spyware attacks on our financial system or security infrastructure is unimaginable. This is the magnitude of risk that we are facing. The murky relationship between Huawei and the Chinese state is of great concern for India as hostilities between the two countries have increased in the last few years. The increased hostility is fueled by China’s global ambition and its desire to play a big brother’s role in the neighborhood. It has time and again supported Pakistan and tried to put down India in international forums. Allowing Huawei to function in India and take part in the development of our critical infrastructure will thwart our national security.
In the current scenario, India can take inspiration from Vietnam which has rejected Huawei on the grounds that they cannot “risk their critical infrastructure just because they (Huawei) offer something cheaper than other companies”. Australia also banned Chinese companies on the basis that the “National Security Concerns” and policy equivalence with China remain the overriding feature of excluding Chinese firms from Australia’s telecommunications sector. The increased cost as a result of using non-Huawei equipment is a price that businesses, and Indian consumers, would need to pay in the favour of greater national security.
India could also use this opportunity to develop its own 5G infrastructure. This infrastructure may not be cutting edge or the most cost-effective but it would be the most secure. This could be a step towards indigenization of high technology products in India. The government could enable an ecosystem consisting of private enterprises and universities/research institutes which will drive innovation in this field. This ecosystem may produce future telecommunications technologies such as 5G and onwards. For this model to succeed, the government has to provide greater operational freedom and flexibility to our universities as well as private players. The 21st century will be driven by Techno-nationalism. Some experts argue that hostilities between the US and China are an earlier form of it. India needs to prepare itself for such conflicts in future. Securing its 5G infrastructure would be a positive step in this direction.
Nishant Mishra is a 2nd-year law student at Gujarat National Law University. He has a keen interest in Intellectual Property law and emerging technologies.