An academic says Huawei is still likely to form part of the 5G network. Photo: Lynn Grieveson.

Telcos are facing calls to remove Huawei from their existing phone networks, a week after the controversial Chinese telco was barred from Spark’s 5G network.

Faraz Hasan, senior lecturer in communication engineering and networks at Massey University has said New Zealand may still be vulnerable to Huawei through its 4G networks, in which Huawei plays a substantial role.

Last week the GCSB (New Zealand’s digital spy agency) said it found a “significant national security risk” in Spark’s proposed 5G network. Under New Zealand’s Telecommunications (Interception Capability and Security) Act, or TICSA, the agency then refused Spark’s bid to build the network unless Spark took action to mitigate that risk.

Spark had been confident in the bid, noting Huawei was already part of its 4G network, as well as the 3G and 4G networks of rival telco 2Degrees.

But Huawei is controversial. The business environment in its native China means governments in the west cannot have complete confidence that its business is operationally distinct from the Chinese Communist Party.

On 28 June 2017, the National People’s Congress passed the National Intelligence Law which orders Chinese firms to cooperate with intelligence requests from requests from Chinese intelligence. This has lead to the inference that allowing Huawei into the 5G network would expose telecommunications infrastructure to Chinese infiltration.

A report in The Australian newspaper, cited intelligence sources saying Huawei had provided Chinese intelligence with access to a foreign network. 

Huawei has been banned from 5G networks in Australia, faces an effective ban in the United States and this week British telco provider BT announced it would exclude Huawei from the core of its 5G network. 

On Thursday, BT went one step further, confirming it would remove Huawei components from the core of its 4G and 3G network as well. The announcement was not new. BT’s policy of removing Huawei from the core of its networks had been announced as far back as 2016.

In a statement released to Newsroom about the decision, Huawei has said that it had “never” had a cyber security-related incident. 

“Huawei has a robust cyber security assurance system and a proven track record,” the company said. 

Huawei has never formed the core of Spark’s 4G network. It is confined to the periphery, operating on cell towers and base stations. Allowing Huawei into the periphery of a network but not the core made sense to many security observers, as the core, which had been described as the ‘brain’ of the mobile network represented the greatest security vulnerability. 

The 5G network has been treated differently. Although again Huawei was not involved in the network’s core, the speeds of 5G mean more processing is done on the periphery.

Until now, there has been little concern that the GCSB’s decision would effect existing networks, but Hasan told Newsroom the way the 5G network is built means that Huawei could still present a threat. 

The new 5G network will leverage existing telco infrastructure, meaning parts of the 4G network, possibly containing Huawei technology, will form a part of the new 5G network. 

Spark has confirmed that 4G components, including cell towers will likely be a part of the 5G network, but a representative from the company said the existing 4G infrastructure had been vetted and approved by the GCSB under the TICSA legislation. 

Updates to the 4G network using Huawei technology had also been vetted by the GCSB under TICSA. 

Some of this technology will be leveraged into the new 5G network. It is not yet clear whether the peculiarities of 5G mean that the “safe” 4G network becomes unsafe as part of the 5G. 

But Hasan believes Huawei technology will inevitably form some part of the new network. 

“As we transition to 5G, the existing deployment will be reused so the devices made by Huawei will inevitably become part of our 5G network,” Hasan said. 

“If the plan is to build on top of 4G, then Huawei will be there,” he said. 

He has also raised alarm at Hauwei’s role in New Zealand’s internet “backbone”. 

He is calling on the Government to consider the effectiveness of the GCSB’s decision on Hauwei, saying it does not rule out the company’s infiltration of the 5G network. 

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