5G rollout: India must strike the right partnerships

Utkarsh Rai | Updated on July 31, 2020

With China’s Huawei out due to security concerns, India must be careful which countries it pairs with for 5G. Future networks shouldn’t face the possibility of restriction or overhaul

The first time I heard about Huawei was in 1995, when I was working in San Francisco bay area. It was described as a Chinese company that was making routers by stealing software code from Cisco. There was no way for me to verify the veracity of that comment. Now, according to an Omdia report, Huawei routers have earned top spot in global carrier market in 2019. Quickly after 1995, Huawei started to diversify its portfolio and added optical transport and switching equipment to its kitty. By 2010, it approached US telecom service providers with itsofferings. Cash-starved service providers were not impressed with Huawei’s products but couldn’t say no to its attractive offer.

The US equipment manufacturers suddenly woke up to Huawei’s existence when they started losing deals in their home country. I was heading the India centre of one such company. Industry lobbied and in 2012, the US government put restrictions on Huawei. The European Union did not follow the US, and continues to work with Huawei till date. Now, Huawei not only provides full end-to-end networking solutions, but has also entered into consumer electronics with its own operating system.

Broadly speaking, 1G and 2G come in the first category of mobile technology evolution. In the second category come 3G and 4G, while 5G is a paradigm shift. Politics around technology started to surface around the time of 3G, as our lives started to get more wired with technology. The ongoing 5G political debate is no less than a war. Every government is using the tech sector as a pillar for their foreign policy. China is aggressively pushing for Huawei, as technological dominance would be a big help to its dream of world dominance.

Issues with Huawei

Two things are frequently discussed about Huawei: security issues and lower cost.

In 3G or 4G networks, my Bengaluru team could troubleshoot any issue happening in our company’s installed network across the world. Someone collects the data log at the installation site and transfers it, or it is accessed by logging in remotely. All network equipment providers, including Huawei, do the same for their own equipment. In a less complex network, centralised and localised data poses less security risk. During later stages, a new trend emerged to take out intelligence from hardware and push more data towards the cloud. This approach has many advantages, but also has an increased security risk. Data is not localised at a given geography anymore.

With 5G, billions of devices will be connected to the network, leading to massive data generation. This data will reveal a lot about many aspects of the lives of our citizens. Any hacking or malicious usage of the data will have dire consequences.

Therefore, choosing the right vendors for 5G is important. A wrong choice will have a huge impact, and replacing a vendor is cumbersome and expensive. So, trust that a vendor will abide by security norms is paramount. All foreign vendors, including Huawei, will face this trust challenge. The world trusts democratic countries more as they are open, transparent and noisy; China’s Huawei will lose out for such reasons.

Cost is the USP of Huawei, and the reason behind its vast global footprint. Some estimates say that Huawei is around 20 per cent cheaper than other providers. Replacing it will make the network expensive, leading to higher costs to end-users and making service providers non-competitive.

A good portion of the Airtel and Vodafone Idea networks’ traffic passes through Huawei equipment. Reliance Jio, however, does not use Huawei equipment. With its excellent negotiation skills, it was able to bring down other vendor costs to match Huawei. Recently, the US government too praised Reliance Jio for being a “clean” network. So Huawei has now lost this price advantage, too, besides the security trust.

Strategic partnership

If not Huawei, then who?

India has to think strategically for 5G, even if it takes more time to roll out. After a lot of brouhaha, international players have started to accept that for “Make in India”, “Digital India” and “Atmanirbhar Bharat”, they have to partner with Indian entities. Private players are free to partner with any of the non-Huawei vendors. But for the government-owned networks, defence networks and other sensitive networks in India, the decision has to be more political rather than technical.

Geopolitical compulsions sometimes make “veto power” countries stand against India. Restrictions on nuclear fuel, military spare parts and many other things have been imposed on us in the past. As technology is now a powerful political tool, our 5G network components have to be immune to such future restrictions. India should build networks using indigenous products and prefer having strategic partnerships with non-“veto power” countries such as Japan, South Korea, Germany and Scandinavian countries.

The writer is a leadership coach and the former India and China head of an IT MNC

Published on July 31, 2020

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