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The equities of telco cyber exploitation: 5G and the Huawei ban

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    22nd May, 2021
The equities of telco cyber exploitation: 5G and the Huawei ban


  • Recently, India announcedthat it would allow mobile carriers to carry out 5G trials with Ericsson, Nokia, Samsung, and C-DOT equipment.
  • The statement left off ‘Huawei’ and other Chinese equipment manufacturers. They have not been banned from supplying equipment outright, but news reports following the announcement have hinted that, in the coming months, new procurement ruleswill officially block mobile carriers from using Chinese equipment.
  • The deployment of 5G, the next generation of wireless technology, has become a priority around the world.
  • India, of course, does not wish to be left behind in the race to build the infrastructure that could have an economic impact exceeding $1 trillion by 2035in India alone, according to government estimates.
  • The 5G-enabled tech could also help India leapfrog traditional barriers to development by supporting ambitious infrastructure and e-governance initiatives.

Therefore, it is essential to analyze India’s potential in upgrading to 5G and upcoming challenges.

Understanding the 5G infrastructure

  • 5G is the 5th generation of mobile networks, a significant evolution of today’s 4G LTE networks. 
  • It is the next-generation cellular technology that will provide faster and more reliable communication with ultra-low latency.
  • Even after the entry of 5G into the Indian networks, the earlier generation mobile technologies (2G, 3G and 4G) will continue to remain in use and that it may take 10 or more years to phase them out.
  • 5G uses radio waves or radio frequency (RF) energy to transmit and receive voice and data connecting our communities.
  • 5G is expected to add to those service dimensions through improved network performance characteristics as well as enabling technologies such as IoT, AI, robotics etc.
  • It is meant to deliver higher multi-Gbps peak data speeds, ultra-low latency, massive network capacity, increased availability, more reliability, and a more uniform user experience. 
  • 5G is the 5th generation mobile network. It is a new global wireless standard after 1G, 2G, 3G, and 4G networks.
    • First generation - 1G
      1G delivered analog voice.
    • Second generation - 2G
      Early 1990s: 2G introduced digital voice (e.g. CDMA- Code Division Multiple Access).
    • Third generation - 3G
      Early 2000s: 3G brought mobile data (e.g. CDMA2000).
    • Fourth generation - 4G LTE
      4G LTE ushered in the era of mobile broadband.

Phases of 5G rollout

  • In the initial phase, these trials will be for 6 months, including a 2 month period for procurement and setting up of the equipment. In these 6 months, telcos will be required to test their set up in urban areas, semi-urban areas as well as rural areas.
    • During this period, the telcos will be provided with experimental spectrum in various bands, such as-
      • the mid-band of 3.2 GHz to 3.67 GHz
      • the millimeter wave band of 24.25 GHz to 28.5 GHz
      • others
    • Low band spectrum: While the low band spectrum has shown great promise in terms of coverage and speed of internet and data exchange, the maximum speed is limited to 100 Mbps (Megabits per second). This means that while telcos can use and install it for commercial cellphone users who may not have specific demands for very high speed internet, the low band spectrum may not be optimal for specialised needs of the industry.
    • Mid-band spectrum: The mid-band spectrum, on the other hand, offers higher speeds compared to the low band, but has limitations in terms of coverage area and penetration of signals. Telcos and companies, which have taken the lead on 5G, have indicated that this band may be used by industries and specialised factory units for building captive networks that can be moulded into the needs of that particular industry.
    • High-band spectrum: The high-band spectrum offers the highest speed of all the three bands, but has extremely limited coverage and signal penetration strength. Internet speeds in the high-band spectrum of 5G has been tested to be as high as 20 Gbps (giga bits per second), while, in most cases, the maximum internet data speed in 4G has been recorded at 1 Gbps.

What made India to turn against China?

  • Border clash: The Galwan Valley clash between China and India in June 2020 proved to be a decisive turning point for the Indian government.
    • India’s immediate response to the skirmishes was to ban more than 260 Chinese apps under the IT Act, 2000, purportedly to ensure the safety, security, and sovereigntyof Indian cyberspace. While benefits of the move for India’s technological security have been questioned, the measure was a clear political signal.
  • Increased partnership with major economies: At the same time, India has invested more in its technological partnerships with Australia, the European Union, and the United States. The more New Delhi works with those powers, the more momentum there will be pushing their convergence on major technologies.
    • For example, the recent Quad leaders’ summit in March, this year, saw the decision to launch a critical- and emerging-technology working groupto facilitate cooperation on international standards and innovative technologies of the future.

The launch of the Quad Tech Network is another initiative to promote research and public dialogue on cyber- and critical-technology issues.

  • Technology alignment with western countries: Although India’s final answer to the 5G question was prompted by security concerns, its burgeoning technology partnerships with Western countries have also played a role.

What are the reasons behind this specific ban?

  • Espionage activity: Security has undoubtedly become one of the most important factors in choosing suppliers for 5G gear, given the possibility that the network equipment could be used to spy.
  • Lack of transparency in the structure: The United States and Australia are particularly concerned about the risks associated with Huawei, citing its-
    • opaque ownership structure
    • proximity to the Chinese Communist Party
    • provisions of China’s espionage and intelligence laws that require organizations and citizens to “support, assist, and cooperate with the state intelligence work”

Steps in the same direction

  • Australia banned Chinese firms from its critical infrastructure in August 2019.
  • The UK banned Huawei in July 2020. 
  • The United States in 2020 has taken a slew of measures to ban Huawei and is persuading its allies to follow suit.
  • Most of EU including Poland, Estonia, Romania, Denmark, Latvia, and Greece also banned last year.

No China Policy initiatives

In a line, the exclusion of Chinese firms from India’s 5G is a policy that can be informally called, No China 3.0. So far, there are three series of No China policy initiatives.

Series 1

  • No China 1.0 happened on 29 June 2020, when India banned 59 Chinese apps.
  • No China 1.1 happened on 28 July 2020, when it banned another 47 Chinese apps.
  • No China 1.2 happened on 2 September 2020, when India banned another 118 apps.
  • No China 1.3 happened on 24 November 2020, when it banned another 43 apps.

Series 2

  • No China 2.0 happened on 2 June 2020, when India banned Chinese firms from participating in highway projects.

Series 3

  • No China 3.0 happened on 4 May 2021, with the exclusion of Chinese firms Huawei and ZTE from India’s 5G trials.

But this is not the end. There will be a Series 4, a Series 5, a Series 6…7…8… All of them will ensure No China in India’s critical infrastructure. 

What is China’s take on India’s decision?

  • China expressed “concern and regret” at India’s move to not include Chinese telecommunication firms among the companies permitted this week to conduct trials for the use of 5G technology.
  • China said that its relevant companies have been operating in India for years, providing mass job opportunities and making contribution to India’s infrastructure construction in telecommunications.
  • The latest move to “exclude Chinese telecommunications companies from the trials” would “harm their legitimate rights and interests”.

Why a ‘doubtful’ China is not good for India?

  • Worsening of relationship: The decision could possibly lead to worsening of Indo-China ties and further alienate India from its own neighborhood.
  • Lack of clarity over equipment supply: Without inclusion of China, there will be questions regarding who should provide the equipment. And since the beginning of that debate—specifically whether to allow Chinese tech companies to build these networks against U.S. wishes—India has maintained conspicuous ambiguity.
  • Unresolved US Question: Unease with Huawei in particular dovetailed into larger geopolitical and strategic concerns associated with the ongoing technological cold war between the United States and China.
    • Both countries—through policies, statements, and actions—have worked to compel third parties to either choose Huawei and risk ties with the United States or ban Huawei and invite repercussions from China.

Committees to review Huawei question

  • India established two committees to review the Huawei question more closely.
    • The first was convened under India’s principal scientific advisor.
    • The second was made up of members from the country’s Home Affairs Ministry and Intelligence Bureau.
  • Even the composition of these committees shows a clear evolution in the Indian government’s approach to the 5G question.
    • For instance, the first committee had significant representation from India’s Science and Technology and External Affairs ministries, while the second committee had a greater focus on security voices.

The Indian security establishment must create an equities process to calculate and weigh telco vulnerabilities against its national security risks and foreign policy estimations. It may then realise that the solutions may not be as simple as banning Huawei—that just makes the job of Chinese hackers a bit harder.

How outcasting China will impact the world?

  • The effect is the potential splinteringof global cyberspace and technology into distinct spheres of influence.
  • Policy experts even predict a “digital iron curtain” falling across global technology and governance as some countries opt to go with the United States and others—particularly low- and middle-income countries—pick more cost-effective Chinese options.

What are the recurring concerns for India?

  • Operational risks
  • Vulnerabilities related to security
  • Lack of experience in technology design
  • Equipment costs and economic viability
  • Geopolitical competition of technology across the globe

How 5G will change India?

  • A new shape to India’s digital market: This is a departure from New Delhi’s previous position; as the second-biggest market by number of phone users, India was keen on maintaining ambiguity as a bargaining chip. Now, the Indian government appears ready to be clear and decisive. Given the size of the Indian market, this move has the potential to shape the choices of other fence-sitters.
  • Strengthening India’s information infrastructure: Technological developments built on 5G networks will form the backbone of India’s critical information infrastructure and will host a steady stream of sensitive data and information.
  • Emerging as an affordable example: Without the added burden of import costs, this can also allow Indian telecom operators to serve 5G networks to users at super affordable prices. India is already one of the most affordable data markets in the world, and if the leading operators in the country can set the ball rolling by offering 5G services at the same, super affordable price points, the move can even set a strong precedent for the world to follow.
  • Social transformation: In India, 5G has the potential to bring major societal transformation and support the government’s flagship schemes in infrastructure, development and e-governance.

What measures are required in India for smooth 5G adoption?

  • System of protection for cyber threats: In India, service providers will need to protect their network at a massive scale, at every layer, from multiple cyber threats.
  • Focus on capacity building initiatives: Crucial emphasis must be laid on systemic, whole-of-government capacity building initiatives on extremely vital technological areas like cryptanalysis (deemed as the ultimate tier of strategic capability at par with nuclear), activities and exploit engineering.
  • Security from ‘risky’ factors: The current amendments have been necessitated by the need to secure the vital and burgeoning Indian telecom space from untrusted vendors and unwanted elements.
  • Tackling 5G as critical infrastructure: On the economic side, the government must view 5G as a form of critical infrastructure.
    • Critical infrastructure comprises those sectors whose destruction would adversely impact a country’s security, economy or safety. It requires the government to identify risks and vulnerabilities — natural (earthquakes or floods, for instance) or manmade (Chinese intrusion, for instance) — and be prepared for them.
  • Responsive government action: Apart from the telcos, it is also important that the government be ready to roll out the new technology as soon as possible.
  • A standing committee of Lok Sabha on Information Technology has already flayed the government for delays in approvals, inadequate availability of spectrum, high spectrum prices, poor development of use cases and low status of fiberisation among others.
  • It is due to these reasons, the panel had said, that India could miss the 5G bus.


India is the world's second-biggest market by number of phone users. Thus, India aims to ensure that 5G is implemented in a manner that is both safe and fair. For this, it must look to balance out security and consumer benefit.