Huawei participation in India's 5G trials a step in the right direction; could speed up commercial 5G rollout

In the absence of hard evidence, it would be foolish to rely on the whims and fancies of the Trump government when making policy decisions for India.

Union Telecom Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad announced that India will be opening up its 5G spectrum for trials to all telecom equipment manufacturers, including Chinese telecom giant Huawei.

An official has stated that the Huawei clearance, along with clearance for other telecom equipment makers, is only for the testing phase at the moment.

"5G is the future, it is speed. We will encourage new innovation in 5G," said Prasad.

Huawei India CEO Jay Chen thanked the Indian government for its decision. "We firmly believe that only technology innovations and high-quality networks will be the key to rejuvenating the Indian telecom industry. We have full confidence in the Indian government and industry to partner with the best technology for India's own long-term benefit and also for cross-industry development," said Chen.



Why is Huawei's participation in 5G trials a big deal?

One of the major technology-related pieces of news of 2019 was the fact that the United States banned Huawei from any 5G related deployment within its borders, which was eventually expanded to a total US ban on trade with Huawei and 70 affiliated Chinese companies.

US President Donald Trump passed the government order back in May 2019.

Google announced that it would stop Android services and updates on Huawei made phones (a ban which has been excused twice since it was first announced). This caused Huawei to release its own in-house operating system for smartphones and smart devices called Harmony OS.

Arm Holdings which licenses designs for application processors inside chipsets also asked all its employees to "halt all active contracts, support entitlements, and any pending engagements."

US Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross said in a statement that the Trump-backed decision would “prevent American technology from being used by foreign-owned entities in ways that potentially undermine US national security or foreign policy interests.” The basic premise for banning Huawei from the US is the suspicion that Huawei telecom equipment will provide a backdoor to the Chinese government, something the US does not want to risk. Given Huawei founder Ren Zhengfei's connection with the Chinese Communist Party, the US is wary of handing over control of critical infrastructure to the Chinese.

But, but... has the US govt provided any proof of the allegations it has made against Huawei?

No. The US govt hasn't provided any proof on the matter, but it has gone ahead and put pressure on its allies to also ban Huawei from their 5G deployment plans. Some countries such as Australia and New Zealand have agreed to abide by these requests. But many other countries aren't too keen to bow down to US diktats.

Till October, Germany had taken a stand that it won't ban any 5G equipment maker up front. But latest developments include clearing a proposal involving technical certification and scrutiny of telecoms equipment suppliers. If this proposal goes through, it could possibly ban Huawei from Germany as well. The UK hasn't entirely banned Huawei from its 5G trials, but does not want to use Huawei equipment in its critical industries.

In March, Huawei had sued the US government for what it called an 'unfair ban.' “The US Congress has repeatedly failed to produce any evidence to support its restrictions on Huawei products,” Guo Ping, Huawei’s rotating chairman had then told The New York Times. 

With all this background, it is indeed a big deal that India (which is said to be in the good books of the US administration) has taken a stand and given a go-ahead to Huawei, even if it's just for 5G trials. Back in June, Huawei had agreed to sign a 'no backdoor policy' agreement with the Indian government to keep away the fears that the US has been perpetrating. According to Business Standard, under the proposed agreement, the Indian government will have the power to ban Huawei from operating in the country if there is serious evidence of security breach on its part.

In the absence of any concrete US proof of Huawei providing a backdoor to China, and Huawei agreeing to sign a no-backdoor policy, it would be foolish to rely on the whims and fancies of the Trump government when making policy decisions for India. Dilly-dallying on this decision also means a delay in commercial 5G deployments in the country. We are already late on that front. The move has also got a thumbs up from the Cellular Operators Association of India (COAI) which said that telcos were awaiting this decision before going ahead with their investments.

Which countries have banned Huawei and which haven't?

Huawei CEO and founder Ren Zhengfei. Reuters

Huawei CEO and founder Ren Zhengfei. Reuters

Huawei has been banned from operating in the US, Australia, Japan, Taiwan, New Zealand. Countries such as France, Hungary, South Korea, Thailand, Switzerland, Russia and Malaysia have permitted Huawei to operate. Germany, Canada, Italy, the Netherlands and the UK are still on the fence regarding Huawei, but they haven't banned it outright despite US pressure.

Which telecom equipment manufacturers have each of the big three telcos decided to go with?

According to reports, Vodafone-Idea has agreed to use Huawei and Ericsson for its 5G trials, Bharti Airtel has sought permission to use Nokia, Huawei and Ericsson for making its 5G telecom equipment, whereas Reliance Jio has an agreement with Samsung.

Airtel chairman Sunil Bharati Mittal had even gone on to say that he found Huawei-made 3G and 4G equipment to be superior to that of other European vendors.

In a panel discussion at the World Economic Forum 2019 with US commerce secretary Ross, Mittal noted that the Chinese company had been able to take its products to a level where it was leading edge. "The power consumption is a fraction of the Europeans', the footprint is small if you have to put it on a tower, and they have powerful leading features... They are clearly leading edge. Now, whether they compromised some American IPs (internet protocols), I don't know," he said.

How long will the 5G trials last and what are its objectives?

The 5G trials were supposed to begin earlier this year. The idea behind the trials is to determine use-cases for 5G in India. Unlike the 4G network, 5G has immense applications in fields as varied as fixed to the home (FTTH) broadband internet, high-speed mobile internet on phones, communications with Internet of Things devices which can be deployed in many fields such as agriculture, manufacturing industries, healthcare, data analytics, automotive industries, and so on.

These 5G trials are supposed to act as a precursor to the proper public rollout of 5G services. Countries such as China, South Korea, the USA, the UK, Germany have some regions where 5G has become operational. There is no clarity as to when commercial 5G operations in India will begin. Given the delay in the testing of 5G networks in India, it would be safe to assume that 5G won't be going mainstream in India before 2021 at the very least. China is the only country in the world, currently, which has the highest number of commercial 5G deployments.

The government has said that it will have the next round of spectrum auction from April to June 2020. Four months should give enough time for telcos to test key 5G use cases.

Disclosure: Reliance Industries Ltd which owns Reliance Jio is the sole beneficiary of Independent Media Trust which controls Network18 Media & Investments Ltd, the publisher of Firstpost and tech2

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