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Hard core, fringe benefits: Huawei’s battle for 5G

What does the political manoeuvring in London and Washington this week mean for New Zealand?

Huawei and 5G. It’s the news story that has everything. It’s got global politics, it’s got Trump, Chinese spies, Iranian sanctions, driverless cars, talking (and listening) fridges. And now it’s got British Prime Minister Boris Johnson and Brexit. 

But drill through the hype and the critical point of the story may be far more prosaic - a question of technology. More specifically: core versus fringe. And that may be the most important angle when it comes to deciding the future of Huawei in New Zealand’s 5G rollout. 

Hold that thought. To start: Huawei and 5G 101. 

5G is the super-fast mobile network that promises enough grunt to revolutionise transport, healthcare, entertainment and manufacturing. It’s big.

Huawei is the largest telecommunications equipment manufacturer in the world. It has almost 200,000 employees, has sold its gear and services in 170 countries, and made $185 billion in 2019, which is what GDP for the whole of New Zealand was in 2010. It’s big too.

The problem: Huawei claims to be employee-owned, but it has strong links with the Chinese government. And this has led to questions about whether the ruling Communist Party could pressure Huawei into installing back doors into its products that would allow China to spy on traffic passing through its networks.

The US says the risks are too great. So does Australia. Both have banned Huawei from their 5G network installs. But the cat got among the pigeons this week when Boris Johnson decided Huawei gear could continue to be used in the UK’s 5G rollout - with certain caveats. The Americans were livid.

Republican senator Tom Cotton described Boris Johnson's Huawei decision as like allowing the KGB to build the UK’s telephone network during the cold war. Photo: Getty Images.

Basically, the UK announcement says: no more than 35 percent of the equipment at the edge of a UK 5G network can be made by Huawei; no Huawei kit can come near sensitive areas like military bases and nuclear sites; and there can be nothing from Huawei in "sensitive" parts of the network: the grunty, intelligent parts often known as “the core”.

And here’s the rub, says NZ tech commentator Paul Brislen, a former chief executive of the Telecommunications Users Association of NZ (Tuanz).

"If you are a spy and you are in at the edge, you are in"

What the UK has announced “doesn’t make sense”, Brislen says, because with 5G, there is no easy separation of “core” and “fringe”. With 3G and 4G you had a central computer system - normally in a locked building somewhere - and the rest of the network was basically a conduit. 

“You had a spine and then nerves came out, but the brains were in the core. All the processing and management of information was done in the core.”

Not so with 5G.

“5G does not have a central core - the smart stuff is distributed out to the end points. It’s an entirely different network architecture. If you are a spy and you are in at the edge, you are in,” Brislen says.

It’s what the US has been talking about for years, and the US State Department has a nice graphic to back up its arguments.

Source: US State Department

It makes sense that to run applications like autonomous cars or telemedicine, the fringes of the network will need to be able to process information at super-fast speeds.

Granny will have been squashed long before the instructions arrive.

Imagine a city of driverless vehicles using 5G to collect information from an array of sensors. This information flow will control where the vehicles go and make sure they don’t bump into each other and/or granny crossing the road. 

There’s no time for all that information to travel back to the core of the network, for decisions to be made there about which vehicle moves where, and for those decisions be transmitted back to the vehicles. 

Granny will have been squashed long before the instructions arrive. 

Instead the data will be received via intelligent local network cell sites and these local networks will make the split-second decisions governing the vehicles. 

But having so many potential access points into the network will also potentially make the data vulnerable to attack, Brislen says.

“The UK decision says that Huawei can’t build the important bits, but it’s all important. Saying it isn’t allowed to build the core doesn’t stack up.”

As the senior State Department “cyber diplomat” Robert Strayer puts it: “The previous security distinction between critical and noncritical elements is gone.

“You cannot mitigate the risk of untrusted vendors in 5G networks by placing them in the ‘edge’ because there is no distinction between the edge and the core,” Strayer says. “The entire network will require as much protection as the core does with today’s 4G technology.”

The British government decision appears to back up Huawei’s arguments that you can effectively split intelligent core and dumb fringe in a 5G network.

Huawei’s New Zealand deputy managing director Andrew Bowater says trials with Spark in New Zealand and through the Huawei Cyber Security Evaluation Centre (HCSEC) in the UK demonstrated that. 

Huawei NZ's Andrew Bowater says the NZ government should follow the UK's example. Photo: Lynn Grieveson.

“It’s true in a 5G world the core is distributed further out, but there are still separate parts. Antennae are less sensitive; other parts which just have transmitting functions. There are parts that can be separated out. For example, we could make the aerials, but not the brains.

In late 2018, New Zealand’s spy agency, the GCSB (Government Communications Security Bureau) turned down an application by Spark to use Huawei equipment in setting up a local 5G network on Auckland’s waterfront. The GCSB didn’t make public the reasons behind its decision, but it is widely accepted that the inclusion of Huawei equipment was the sticking point. 

Brislen says he doesn’t expect the UK government’s decision will make a difference in New Zealand, because the parameters that the two countries have around making a decision are different.

While the GCSB looks simply at any security risk around the equipment, Boris Johnson was also concerned about bringing more competition into a market that otherwise risks being dominated by a small number of players - notably Nokia and Ericsson.  

“The Brits say the bigger risk is only having two network providers,” Brislen says. “But that isn’t a consideration for the GCSB, because it is just looking at technology, not the bigger picture.”

Huawei’s Andrew Bowater says he’s happy with the UK decision.

“It shows what can be achieved when government works collaboratively with industry. It’s about managing and mitigating risks," Bowater says. 

In a post-5G world, much of the emergency response after a disaster will be controlled by local networks, using sensors to give information to fire, ambulance and police crews. This could be anything from which buildings might be in danger, temperatures within buildings, whether people are inside and where they are, and any gas or other emissions. “People don’t want this accessible by foreign governments," says one source. Photo: Getty Images.

“We’re impressed with the package over there and hopefully we can work with Government here for similar outcomes," he says.

Huawei will be aiming to put its case directly to New Zealand ministers and officials, Bowater says, as well as working with Spark and 2degrees on specific 5G projects. 

“We’ve been working with 2degrees for 15 years and Spark for eight. We’re hopeful our partners will put in new applications [to GCSB] with us. 

“Anything that goes in we will make sure is rock solid, so we can get through the extra scrutiny that goes with what we do and manage the risk, in the same way that the UK has.”

Huawei is already involved in the UK’s 5G rollout, with equipment in three out of the four main networks. Boris Johnson’s announcement simply confirms the Chinese company can continue to be involved in the future. 

The difference with New Zealand is that here, the GCSB has to approve projects first, whereas in the UK “networks start rolling out and then work collaboratively with agencies on mitigation approaches,” Bowater says.

Spark and 2degrees have both welcomed the UK decision.

“We’ve always maintained that it’s better for competition and customers if Huawei is an option as a technology vendor,” says 2degrees head of corporate affairs Mathew Bolland. 

However he accepted Johnson’s statement might not change things here. “Regards the UK decision, [GCSB] Minister Andrew Little has this morning reiterated that New Zealand will continue to use the statutory code to make decisions about the technology used in New Zealand.”

Meanwhile Spark spokesman Arwen Vant said Spark had already gained government approval for its initial 5G roll out last year using Nokia equipment. 

“For our upcoming 5G roll outs, we will work through the approval process in due course with Nokia and our other RAN (Radio Access Network) vendors Samsung and Huawei, prior to any deployment of their equipment.”

But there's a 5G 201

Vant says it's not as simple as 4G versus 5G. Rather there are two types of 5G architecture - non standalone (NSA), which is supported by existing 4G infrastructure, and standalone (SA), which as its name suggests, involves new end-to-end architecture.

"The 5G networks that are predominantly deployed globally today are NSA networks - where the delineation between "core" and "fringe" is very clear," Vant says. Spark's 5G roll out in the South Island, for example, involves upgrading its 4G network core to be capable of non standalone 5G operation.

It's with standalone 5G, sometimes called "ultimate 5G" that the issues arise with security, Vant says. Standalone 5G, while likely to be faster, more reliable and eventually cheaper, will also see way more processing power at the fringe. 

"We think that the US State Department (the graphic above) is referring to standalone, which is a future evolution of 5G," Vant says.

"It is worth noting that the international SA standards have only recently been completed, so it is very early days for 5G SA architecture and there are many design and security aspects to be worked through including where and how the separation between “core” and “fringe” is managed."

We aren’t sitting under the desks running Spark’s network.

Bowater says Huawei is happy to stick to the same rules as in the UK - limiting itself in sensitive markets, and not selling core equipment.

“It’s worth saying that we don’t operate networks in NZ. Spark and 2degrees own and operate the networks. We just sell them the equipment, but we aren’t manipulating networks day to day. 

"It’s like we sell the car and then they drive it. There’s been some misunderstanding about this. We aren’t sitting under the desks running Spark’s network.”

See other Newsroom stories:

Huawei breaks the Five Eyes firewall

Huawei to plead case directly with Government after UK decision

A big week for 5G and Five Eyes

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