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Facial recognition system using 5G technology showcased by Huawei recently at Putrajaya.

EVERYBODY is talking about the US “ban” on Huawei although few actually understand the reasons behind it or the implications it has on 5G. Most people focus on the fact that Huawei mobile phones will no longer have access to Google’s Android operating system or its Google Play Store apps.

Although the US action against Huawei has the impact of affecting Huawei’s handset business, the bigger and more significant repercussion is on the impending rollout of 5G worldwide.

5G, as its name implies, is the successor to 4G, the mobile network technology that all of us use for mobile Internet. It’s going to be quite an upgrade though, with 5G expected to be about 100 times faster than 4G, allowing movies to be downloaded in mere seconds.

Another advantage of 5G is that it has lower latency, which means it takes less time for one device to talk to another. This is crucial for the much-ballyhooed Internet of Things (IoT) to work, where almost all products are linked to each other through the Internet. We’re talking about everyday devices like kitchen equipment, washing machines, TVs, traffic lights and cars.

IoT will be crucial for autonomous vehicles (driverless cars) to work well. For example, IoT might be able to tell your driverless car when a human-driven car is about to speed up and run a red light so that your car can apply the brakes in time. For crucial situations like that, you can’t afford any delay in the network. In short, 5G is what will make IoT work. Without it, there’s no IoT.

The greater bandwidth of 5G also means that more devices can use the network at the same time. That means no more clogging of networks that we’ve all experienced before whenever we’re in a big crowd like a sports event, concert hall or big festival. At times like that, when everybody’s busy taking and sending selfies, the network can slow to a crawl. Not anymore under 5G.

In fact, 5G is supposed to be so fast and have such high bandwidth that many experts believe people would do away with fixed-line Internet, much like how people have done with fixed line telephones these days.

So, there’s a lot to like and a lot to look forward to about 5G, which is supposed to start rolling out in a year or two. But now, it looks like that will be delayed because of the situation with Huawei, which happens to be the industry leader in 5G technology.

It’s supposedly way ahead of its competitors and its pricing is supposed to be lower than rivals too. That’s why many telcos around the world had expected to use its 5G technology. Now, it’s debatable whether Huawei’s technology will be used by many Western countries.

SECURITY WORRIES

Although the US action on Huawei is tangentially related to the ongoing US-China trade war, the root of the problem is the concerns that Huawei’s 5G technology and equipment could be used by China to spy on the US. So it has less to do with trade and more with national security.

In the US, both security experts and lawmakers across the spectrum have warned about the potential danger of Huawei’s 5G technology. Six retired US generals including James Clapper, former Director of National Intelligence and Keith Alexander, former National Security Agency Director and head of the US Cyber Command, issued a joint public statement claiming that “Chinese-designed 5G networks will provide near-persistent data transfer back to China that the Chinese government could capture at will.”

Senator Mark Warner, a Democrat, says that there’s ample evidence to suggest that no major Chinese company is independent of the Chinese government and that using Huawei’s 5G technology could seriously jeopardise US national security. “This isn’t about finding ‘backdoors’ in current Huawei products — that’s a fool’s errand,” Warner said. “Software reviews of existing Huawei products are not sufficient to preclude the possibility of a vendor pushing a malicious update that enables surveillance in the future.”

Meanwhile Senator Marco Rubio, a Republican, said the US must be vigilant in preventing Chinese state-directed telecoms companies like Huawei from undermining and endangering the country’s 5G networks. “I’m not sure we can trust an audit on Huawei any more than we can trust the Chinese government to hand over intelligence showing they do not steal intellectual property from American companies,” he said. “No audit can reveal a future order from the Chinese government to turn over data to them.”

While it’d be easy to portray the US action on Huawei as a trade war tactic to give Western companies a leg up on 5G, it’s actually quite a rare thing for the US government to restrict private companies. Sanctions on whole countries do happen but on specific companies is really not that common.

That, coupled with the concerns raised by US security and military chiefs, who are not political; as well as politicians on both sides of the aisle, tells us that there’s broad consensus in the US on this matter. Anybody who watches US politics will tell you that it’s hard for politicians from different parties to achieve consensus on anything.

It’s worth noting that the European Union’s digital chief, Andrus Ansip, has urged companies to reconsider partnerships with Chinese companies due to an intelligence law, passed in in 2017, that says any organisation and citizen must assist Beijing’s spy agencies with investigations if requested.

For its part, Huawei has commissioned a legal opinion to analyse the consequences of the 2017 law and has claimed that it doesn’t require Huawei to cooperate with state intelligence if it would contradict the legitimate rights and interests of individuals and organisations.

WHO’S WITH HUAWEI

Huawei founder, Ren Zhengfei, made a press appearance in January to insist his company doesn’t help Beijing spy. Huawei’s critics are wary about that due to the fact that it’s very difficult to determine what kind of control or pressure the Chinese government may exert on Chinese companies.

If Western countries end up abandoning Huawei’s 5G technology, does it mean non-Western, and especially smaller, developing countries, will do the same? Singapore apparently hasn’t made up its mind on this matter but Malaysia, it seems, will go with Huawei if we go by what Prime Minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad recently said about the matter.

At a Nikkei “Future of Asia” conference in Tokyo recently, he made headlines by saying that Malaysia would make use of Huawei’s technology “as much as possible…” Mahathir’s other comments, which got less attention, is actually very interesting.

When asked about concerns regarding spying, Mahathir said: “Yes, there may be some spying, but what’s there to spy in Malaysia? We’re an open book.” In other words, he’s not saying there won’t be any chance of spying happening. On the contrary, he’s saying there could very well be spying but it doesn’t matter because there’s nothing to be gained from spying on Malaysia.

A 5G FUTURE

One can easily understand why US lawmakers wouldn’t say the same thing about spying on the US. Western concern about security is understandable, especially because of the critical role 5G will play in everyday life once IoT kicks in. Literally all connectable devices would be connected through this technology.

Ericsson, the Swedish maker of wireless networks, estimates that more than 22 billion gadgets will be connected via IoT by 2024. Billions of devices will be involved, all communicating with each other in real time. Imagine the danger that could pose if the underlying technology were controlled by one firm.

Unless US President Trump changes him mind, it’s very likely the US ban on Huawei will have a serious impact on the company’s global 5G plans. This, in turn, will affect the rollout of 5G around the world as many telcos were considering using Huawei technology. They’re now all reconsidering this in light of the US ban.

But 5G is too important a technology that its rollout will not be stopped - no matter what. With or without Huawei, we’re looking at a 5G future though we’ll probably have to wait a little bit longer now.

Oon Yeoh is a consultant with experiences in print, online and mobile media. Reach him at [email protected].

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