Blocking Huawei from Australia means slower and delayed 5G – and for what?

Both the US and Australia are restricting the activities of Chinese telco Huawei.
Roman Pilipey / AAP

The United States and Australia are deliberately restricting the place of Chinese telco Huawei in their telecommunications landscapes.

We’re told these changes will be worth it from a security point of view.


Read more: What is a mobile network, anyway? This is 5G, boiled down


But Huawei infrastructure is already ubiquitous in telecommunications networks, and we have other avenues available to us if we’re concerned about cybersecurity.

In the end, halting involvement of Huawei in Australia will be felt directly by customers. We will have to be satisfied with below-par 5G internet speeds and delayed service rollouts.

And we probably won’t be able to use Google Play on Huawei smart phones after 2020.

Huawei offers the best 5G

5G is a mobile phone network that promises top speeds, especially in highly populated areas. Australia has been expecting the network to be broadly up and running by around 2020 – there is limited availability in some central business districts right now.

Top 5G speeds can reach up to 10 gigabits per second, 20 times faster than 4G. This means movie downloads in a matter of seconds – as opposed to minutes with 4G. A mobile phone, gaming laptop or smart TV can communicate with a 5G network at a response speed of 1 millisecond, as opposed to 30 milliseconds with 4G.

Huawei, the world’s biggest manufacturer of telecommunications equipment, is leading the 5G race. The Chinese company is around 12 months ahead of its competitors Nokia and Ericsson.

Huawei has been involved in providing 3G and 4G services in Australia since 2004 – reportedly working with Vodafone and Optus, but not Telstra or NBN Co. Huawei built a private 4G network for mining company Santos, and digital voice and data communication systems for rail services in Western Australia and New South Wales. This includes radio masts, base stations and handheld radios, but not the core network.

But Huawei was restricted from participating in future development of Australia’s and the US’s telecommunications networks from August 2018 and May 2019, respectively.

This stems from apparent Australian and US government concerns that Huawei infrastructure could allow the Chinese government to collect foreign intelligence and sensitive information, and sabotage economic interests.


Read more: US ban on Huawei likely following Trump cybersecurity crackdown – and Australia is on board


Costs passed on to consumers

Australia’s telecommunications networks have already felt the impact of the Coalition’s Telecommunications Sector Security Reforms announced in August 2018.

These reforms “place obligations on telecommunications companies to protect Australian networks from unauthorised interference or access that might prejudice our national security”.

The guidance effectively put the companies on notice, implying that use of Huawei could violate cybersecurity laws. No company wants to be in such a position. Continuing with Huawei after being informed that the company may pose a national security risk could bring legal and reputational risks.

The result is companies such as Optus and Vodafone were left scrambling to re-negotiate 5G testing and rollout plans that had been in the works since 2016. Optus has already delayed its 5G roll out.

Most operators do use additional manufacturers such as Nokia and Ericsson for networks and testing. But it’s already clear from cases in Europe that such companies have been slow to release equipment that is as advanced as Huawei’s.

Costs incurred by such changes and the delays in rolling out high-quality services are absorbed by mobile phone companies in the first instance, and eventually passed on to the consumer.

Given existing frustrations with the NBN, customers will continue to wait longer and may have to pay more for top 5G services.

Customers who prefer to use Huawei-made phones could be hit with a double whammy. Recent actions by Google to suspend business operations with Huawei could prevent these customers from having access to Google Play (the equivalent of Apple’s app store on Android devices) in the future.

Huawei is already here

It’s no secret that China’s foreign intelligence-gathering over the internet is increasing.

But it’s doubtful Huawei has assisted such efforts. Technical flaws detected in Italy are reported to be normal in the sector and not due to a backdoor.

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