The air of uncertainty is neither helping the cause of suppliers nor of service providers to plan the roll-out of their service in an orderly fashion.

It is high time the Government settles, once and for all, the various security-related issues relating to use of Chinese telecom equipment. Raking up these concerns every now and then, without offering tangible evidence to back them, helps nobody, while raising questions about the credibility of policymaking in the country. The Telecom Department, only two years ago, came close to banning import of Chinese gear after security agencies raised fears over the presence of embedded spyware or malicious software (‘malware’). Such equipment – manufactured by vendors like Huawei and ZTE – could allegedly be used by the Chinese intelligence to snoop into conversations and data flowing through the Indian network or even shut down communications in Delhi and Mumbai sitting in Beijing.

To be fair, one cannot wholly dismiss these concerns, given the considerable cyber-espionage capacities built by individual hackers and regimes – rogue or otherwise – across the world. Not very long ago, a particular hacking group called Byzantine Candor, with alleged connections to the Chinese military, was said to have managed to infiltrate into the computer networks of a large number of Western institutions and companies. As far as Huawei and ZTE go, a recent US congressional panel report concluded that the two companies “cannot be trusted to be free of foreign state influence” and, hence, could pose a security threat to America. The Australian Government cited similar grounds earlier to ban Huawei from participating in a $37.5 billion national broadband network project. Our own Parliamentary Standing Committee on IT, too, has alluded to the security risks from import of Chinese telecom equipment, while making a case for promoting indigenous manufacturing.

The Chinese vendors are known to be aggressive when it comes to pricing compared with their European or American counterparts. Access to cheaper equipment would certainly help operators offer services at a lower tariff. Neither they nor the ultimate consumers must be denied that benefit on unproven security grounds. The Government should either ban these companies outright based on its own independent investigations, even if it offers no concrete proof but only the preponderance of such a possibility, or allow them to do business in India. What is not acceptable is the air of uncertainty that neither helps the cause of suppliers nor of telecom providers in planning an orderly roll-out of services. The fact is today Huawei and ZTE are supplying network equipment to not only private telecom players, but even the state-owned BSNL or MTNL. If the security threat is real indeed, half of India’s telecom network is already under Chinese control! Let the Government take the nation into confidence at least to reconcile itself to the possibility of such a threat till such time more sterile equipment is put in place when the life of the existing ones runs out.

(This article was published on November 21, 2012)
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