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Huawei NZ conciliatory after UK ban

Huawei New Zealand appears to be concerned that a decision to ban the company overseas could affect it here, Marc Daalder reports

Huawei New Zealand struck a conciliatory tone in a statement released after the United Kingdom banned its British branch from work on the country's 5G infrastructure.

"5G technology is a great opportunity for New Zealand, however it is not the top priority as we come out of Covid and we understand this and have no intention of making this an issue right now," Huawei NZ deputy managing director Andrew Bowater said.

"We have been in the New Zealand market for 15 years and remain committed to New Zealand and our customers here. We are focused on making a positive contribution by working with our customers to help the Covid recovery by ensuring their networks continue to deliver great service to Kiwis."

The statement came after the UK's Digital and Culture Minister Oliver Dowden ordered telecoms not to purchase 5G equipment from Huawei and said legislation would render such action illegal by 2021. All Huawei equipment already in place in the country's 5G network will have to be removed by 2027.

The decision was an about-face from Boris Johnson's call in January to allow Huawei equipment in parts of the fringe of the country's 5G network, although it could not provide core infrastructure.

Dowden said a decision by the United States in May to stop Huawei from producing certain items with US software or technology would render the company's products less secure.

"Given the uncertainty this creates around Huawei’s supply chain, the UK can no longer be confident it will be able to guarantee the security of future Huawei 5G equipment affected by the change in the US foreign direct product rules," Dowden said.

A spokesperson for Huawei UK was more bullish than Bowater, saying the decision "is bad news for anyone in the UK with a mobile phone. It threatens to move Britain into the digital slow lane, push up bills and deepen the digital divide. Instead of ‘levelling up’ the government is levelling down and we urge them to reconsider."

Andrew Little, the Minister responsible for the Government Communications Security Bureau (GCSB), told Radio New Zealand the UK's decision would not impact the ability of Huawei to operate in New Zealand one way or another.

As it stands, decisions around critical tech infrastructure are made on a case-by-case basis by the GCSB.

"We’ve got a statutory regime under which our agency assesses the technology that [telecommunications companies] use. Every time they want to use new technology, then they’ve got to notify the GCSB, that gets assessed for national security interests," Little told Newsroom in January.

The Telecommunications (Interception Capability and Security) Act 2013 (TICSA) lays out the requirements which telecoms must meet in order to receive approval to work on New Zealand's mobile networks.

It is country- and vendor-neutral, meaning that it won't harbour prejudices against Chinese companies or Huawei in particular, the GCSB says. Instead, decisions are made purely on a case-by-case basis according to "what the likelihood is that it will lead to the compromising or degrading of the New Zealand’s public telecommunications network".

In 2018, the GCSB blocked an application from Spark asking to use Huawei technology in the Kiwi telecom's 5G rollout. Spark has instead gone ahead with products from Nokia, but has emphasised that its approach will be "multi-vendor", leaving the door open for Huawei's involvement in the future.

The case-by-case consideration approach called for by TICSA means the US decision to restrict Huawei's access to American technology and software would be taken into account in any future applications.

Technology commentator Paul Brislen said the GCSB never publicly disclosed what part of Spark's application raised red flags, meaning it was impossible for the company to alter the proposal to suit the agency without cutting Huawei entirely.

"Legally speaking we don't have a ban [on Huawei], but in practice we do," he told Newsroom.

"At this stage, it's not likely that there will be another Huawei-telco 5G network bid at this point in New Zealand."

While Spark and Vodafone are able to fund a Nokia-built 5G network, 2degrees relied on Huawei's funding for its prospective 5G infrastructure.

"Maybe Samsung will offer to pay for them to build a network or some kind of co-financing deal, I don't know. Poor old 2degrees is sitting there saying, 'What'll we do now?' They're left dangling."

Brislen also said the UK was looking to strip Huawei equipment from all of its telecom networks. A similar move in New Zealand would be devastating, he said.

"If we were to follow hand-in-glove with the Brits, if they are saying we're going to get rid of all Huawei equipment from all network elements, that's a huge step."

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