US security concerns rubbished by industry and academic feedback

If you thought the UK’s Supply Chain Review was coming to an end, think again as policy makers have been given more food for thought as part of the 5G infrastructure and national security inquiry.

Entitled ‘Ensuring access to ‘safe’ technology’, Parliament’s Joint Committee on the National Security Strategy has opened itself up to public comment. Although it comes as little surprise, the feedback is relatively consistent; let the industry work with Huawei and take a risk-based approach to managing infrastructure and networks.

For those looking across the Atlantic, there might be some hurt feelings. Business and academics from across the UK have largely panned concerns, albeit in very polite wording, suggesting that while there are security standards and regulations to ponder, the US rhetoric is largely not supported by evidence and undermined by its own actions.

Submitted to the inquiry mid-way through last week, the team at Oxford Information Labs makes a very valid point regarding Huawei’s entry onto the Entity List:

“The ban was immediately suspended for 90 days, and that suspension was continued for a further 90 days in August 2019, casting doubt on whether Huawei really did represent an immediate ‘national emergency’ as originally claimed.”

Many might have contemplated this opinion, but few have vocalised it. If Huawei is such a threat to US citizens and business, why has the US Government so easily allowed it to continue to do business within its borders? If the White House propaganda is to be believed, Huawei should be erased from the Land of the Free, though the US Government has continued to validate its presence through the two exemption periods.

There is of course the damage to US businesses to take into account but suspending the enforcement of the ban does undermine the insistence that Huawei is the tip of the Chinese sword.

Another point to consider, which is constantly overlooked, is the depth of evidence to support the wild claims of the White House.

“The US Congress has a long history of making accusations against Huawei, though it has never produced any technical evidence to show that it has undermined the security of its network equipment or that it has impaired the performance of or shutdown networks using its equipment,” said Ewan Sutherland, a telecommunications policy expert from the University of the Witwatersrand.

From a personal perspective, your correspondent feels this is an element of the saga which should be taken very seriously. Due to market consolidation and the intensive R&D demands of 5G, there are already few suppliers for the telcos to consider. If one or two of the major players are to be removed from the supply chain, this is a significant decision to make. Evidence should be at the heart of these actions.

This is an element of the debate which everyone should take into account. Huawei has no material presence in US networks, aside from working with a small number of regionalised players. The US does not have to take an evidence-based approach to banning Huawei, as there is little consequence. Other nations, who have existing relationships with Huawei, must take a much more contemplative approach as there are much more serious implications.

The call for Huawei to be managed as opposed to banned is one which has echoed out of the offices for some time. Vodafone has consistently called for a risk-based approach to procurement, while Three in its evidence to the inquiry has demanded the delay to deployment be minimised. This would appear to be the rational approach, though the UK Government does seem hard-pressed to support it.

This is where the telecommunications industry has backed itself into a corner. In the pursuit of a more cost-efficient supply chain, consolidation has been rife. Alcatel, Lucent, Motorola and Nortel were all victims of the consolidation trends, streamlining the number of suppliers who can offer services to the telcos at scale. Telcos now have to look at Chinese vendors to ensure there is competition.

In an ideal world, the UK or US Government might be able to point to a domestic supplier and suggest more products and services are sourced there. This would allow the Government to have more of a handle on development requirements, and despite the suggestion of a new player emerging, this is unlikely to have any material impact on 5G.

“Perhaps, the United States will push or support the creation of a new manufacturer of RAN, though it would need to be for 6G or 7G, rather than 5G,” said Sutherland.

The likes of Huawei, ZTE, Ericsson and Nokia have been investing in 5G R&D for close to a decade and have already begun 6G investigations. What chance would a new, standalone player have in penetrating this market within the next 10-15 years?

Looking through all the submissions, there seems to be a consensus. There are only three network vendors who can realistically support rapid 5G network deployment at scale, and Huawei happens to be one of them.

Regulators do need to have a much more considered approach to acquisition and mergers in the future, if not for any other reason as to avoid the bureaucratic congestion which we are seeing through this entire Supply Chain Review process.

Another interesting takeaway from the evidence which has been presented, is the desire to remain closely aligned with Europe following Brexit. This should not be considered new either, though perhaps this could build a bridge to repair the damage done by posturing politicians during the Brexit negotiations. Let’s not forget, Europe is the UK’s largest trading partner, and this will not change any time soon; relationships will have to be re-forged following the divorce.

Last week, the European Commission collated all responses from member states into a white paper which said very little which was not already known. 5G presents more of a security threat than generations prior, while state-sponsored attacks are becoming more of a risk. While this might have been seen as busywork, it was a necessary step in the bureaucratic maze to getting something done.

Over the coming months, member states will submit more evidence and recommendations to create what could become a pan-European approach to mitigating risk and rolling out 5G networks. What the submissions are suggesting to the UK Government is that any future proposals on the Isles align as closely as possible to what our European cousins are suggesting. Not only does this provide international consistency, it is a sign of good faith for future trade and political relationships.

Although this is not the end to the protracted evaluation of Huawei and the role of Chinese vendors in the UK network infrastructure segment, it does paint a very strong case for inclusion.

Europe has proven to be a key battle ground in the increasingly fraught conflict between the US and China, and few companies are more exposed to the risk as Huawei. This is a vendor which captures billions in profit in its domestic market, as well as across Asia, though Europe contains a significant number of very prominent customers. However, the trends do seem to be heading the right direction.

Germany has recently said it would not legislate Huawei out of the country, Italy signed a Belt and Road Initiative deal with China in March 2019, Belgium has conducted its own review without consequence to the vendor, while France and the Czech Republic have given warnings but not definitive action. While it is still anyone’s best guess, the UK looks like it is heading towards a risk-based position, potentially enforcing a multi-vendor approach to procurement.

Of course, while logic and behaviour suggest this is the most likely outcome, there is a lot which can go wrong. The UK will have to balance up the impact on existing and potential relationships, especially its standing in the valuable Five Eyes intelligence community.

At some point in the future, the Government is going to have to make a decision. The prolonged review of the supply chain does not sit beside political ambitions for a rapid rollout of 5G or the accelerated timeline for a full-fibre nation. The longer this review takes, the less likely it is the UK will be a major player in the digital economy.

O2 starts making progress in the enterprise services world

O2 might be an ‘also ran’ in the enterprise services world to date, but in being named a supplier on the Crown Commercial Service’s (CCS) new Network Services 2 framework, it is taking a step in the right direction.

As the Government agency tasked with improving government commercial and procurement activity, gaining recognition from the CCS is a notable win for O2. The Network Services 2 framework is effectively the list of suppliers public sector bodies and organizations can work with for telco services such as networks, voice and data provision, internet access and wifi.

“We know that making services easy to procure is a major priority for our public sector customers – so the news that we have been named as a supplier on the new Network Services 2 framework is a huge milestone for all of us at O2,” said Matthew Spencer, Head of Public Sector Sales at O2. “It means we can offer our entire product range of ICT services to public sector and non-profit organisations.

“Today’s announcement opens the door to all sorts of new projects and better integration for customers. As technology evolves, there is enormous potential for improved connectivity, productivity and savings across the public sector – and O2 is here to work with organisations as a digital partner, helping them reach their connectivity goals, faster.”

Originally formed in 1991 under a different name, the CCS is part of the Cabinet Office and negotiates preferred supplier lists for Government departments, agencies and non-profits. It you aren’t on the list, you will find it almost impossible to do business in the public sector.

The ‘Frameworks’ are effectively pre-negotiated template contracts for public sector organizations to use when engaging with potential suppliers for a variety of different services. In this case its telecommunications, but it could be anything from office supplies to payroll management software.

Within each of the frameworks, there are designated ‘Lots’. O2 has been named as a supplier for Lots 1-4 and 6-8, allowing it to offer services such as data access; local connectivity, traditional telephony, inbound telephony, mobile voice and data, paging and alerting and video conferencing. The suppliers for Lots 5, 10 and 13 will be decided in the near future, though we were not able to figure out what these Lots cover.

The supplier lists for Lots 9, 11 and 12 have also been drawn up, though O2 does not feature on these. Services covered here are audio conferencing, radio and surveillance.

At O2, this is a big step forward. The CCS has effectively given the telco its seal of approval, allowing the team to expand in the enterprise services arena.

To date, the enterprise market has been largely dominated by Vodafone and EE. O2 has been operating in the private space for some time, though it has been regularly highlighted by the management team as a significant growth area moving forward. This ambition seems to have been compounded with the looming introduction of 5G.

5G offers the telcos new avenues to work with enterprise customers above and beyond the traditional means of connectivity. With digital transformation a buzzword of yesteryear, enterprise organizations and public sector agencies are increasingly looking to technology to enhance operations. There is an opportunity for the telcos to secure a more valued position in the digital ecosystem, as well as the increased profits, if the proposition is right.

Over the last 12-18 months, O2 has been working alongside a number of the FTSE100 firms to trial usecases ahead of the 5G boom. Although details of the activities are relatively thin, the management team has boasted of its success to date.

Entry onto the preferred suppliers list might seem like little more than a box ticking exercise for some, this is a very important step forward from O2. The inclusion in the framework adds validity and credibility to the O2 enterprise services case, offering a much greater opportunity for the team to carve out market share in a, potentially, very profitable segment of the telco industry.

Google facing another rebellion over Government contracts

676 employees have signed a petition refusing to work with US Customs and Border Protection (CBP) suggesting the agency is violating international human rights.

While public sector contracts can prove to be incredibly fruitful for the cloud giants, the questionable activities of the US Government have led to a number of different objections from Silicon Valley employees. Google is the focal point of this campaign, but it is not the only one which is experiencing internal uprisings.

“It’s time to stand together again and state clearly that we will not work on any such contract,” the rebelling Googlers wrote on Medium. “We demand that Google publicly commit not to support CBP, ICE, or ORR with any infrastructure, funding, or engineering resources, directly or indirectly, until they stop engaging in human rights abuses.”

Over the next few weeks, the CBP will begin the procurement process to identify a new supplier to cloud-based services, for a minimum of a four-year period, potentially beginning in the second quarter of 2020. The contract is incredibly wide-ranging, with various components including security, identity and access management, public cloud storage and data backup, disaster recovery, network management and orchestration and virtualisation.

As you can see from all the components above, taken from one of the RFI documents, this could be an incredibly lucrative contract for the winner. However, these 676 employees want to make sure it is not Google who profits from the misery this agency inflicts on hundreds of individuals.

This is where the dispute lies. Google traditionally has a culture which is incredibly liberal and leftist, and therefore attracts employees who fit this description. A proportion of these employees will object to policies enacted by the current occupant of the White House.

While the employees are reacting to the treatment of refugees on the Southern Border from the CPB, but also the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR), the rebels have pointed towards Google’s own AI principles.

Google has attempted to take the lead on creating an ethical and morally sound approach to AI, stating it would not pursue technologies where the ‘purpose contravenes widely accepted principles of international law and human rights’. Should the management team want to continue this contract, it would certainly irritate a significant number of Googlers, but the inference would be the activities on the Southern border are legitimate. This would simply add fuel to the fire.

“History is clear: the time to say no is now,” the statement concludes. “We refuse to be complicit.

“It is unconscionable that Google, or any other tech company, would support agencies engaged in caging and torturing vulnerable people. And we are not alone — the world is watching, and the facts are clear. We stand with workers and advocates across the industry who are demanding that the tech industry refuse to provide the infrastructure for mass atrocity.”

This is of course not the first time Googlers have rebelled against the power of its technology being used to questionable means. Back in April, Google’s management team caved to employee pressure, ditching a valuable contract for the US military which used its AI smarts to make drone strikes more accurate.

What Google is fast-finding out is that its employees still believe the ‘Do No Evil’ mantra, even if it has been officially dropped by the company.

It should be noted that Google is not the only company with rebellions and idealistic employees. Last year, Amazon faced a similar internal uprising, this one focused on the application of its facial recognition technologies by police forces and government agencies, some of which had little oversight, almost zero accountability and conducted no public consultation. The general public should at least have the right to decide whether it wants to sacrifice personal privacy rights in the pursuit of safety and national security.

“In the face of this immoral US policy, and the US’s increasingly inhumane treatment of refugees and immigrants beyond this specific policy, we are deeply concerned that Amazon is implicated, providing infrastructure and services that enable ICE and DHS,” the Amazon rebels stated.

“We refuse to build the platform that powers ICE, and we refused to contribute to tools that violate human rights.”

There will of course be other examples outside of the cloud giants, though what is worth noting is the precarious tight-rope walk Silicon Valley is being forced to tread currently.

On one hand, these company have a fiduciary responsibility to make money for shareholders; the management team cannot simply ignore lucrative contracts if they want to keep their jobs.

However, these companies also have a reputation to protect. This reputation is what attracts the world’s best and brightest engineers and continuing to attract these individuals is one of the most important elements of the business model. The ‘Do No Evil’ mantra of Google is a perfect example of what attracts young, idealistic and enthusiastic graduates, the valuable resource which underpins success.

The people who work for Google or Amazon, do not want to help the government blow things up, evolve the US into a Big Brother surveillance state or help morally bankrupt individuals violate the decency of individuals from a different country, culture or religion. This is not what they signed-up for.

However, money men are mostly blind to these arguments. They will invest in oil companies irrelevant of the environmental damage, arms companies irrelevant of the harm to human life and bankers irrelevant of their reputation in society. These are people who are tasked with making money, and they demand profits from the Google management team.

This is a very delicate situation to balance, and we suspect it won’t be too long before the vocal and boisterous Googlers are objecting to something else.

China 5G ambitions might hit a Brussels speed bump

The boresome bureaucrats of Brussels have finally gotten back from lunch and there might just be a 5G ban for Chinese companies on the menu before too long.

According to Reuters, the EU officials are considering drawing up new rules which would effectively ban any participation from Chinese companies in the up-coming 5G bonanza. Although there have certainly been some dissenting voices across the bloc over the last couple of months, a bloc-wide ban would be scaling up the anti-China rhetoric more than a few incremental steps.

Officials would almost certainly state any changes would be made for the greater good and are not targeted at a single nation, but that statement is increasingly difficult to swallow. There are a couple of different strategies to achieve the anti-China goal, but the Brussels brunch brigade will certainly have to get a move on if they are to make an impact.

5G is just around the corner and the groundwork is being laid for the lean, mean networks. Purchases will be made in the near future, but with this air of uncertainty flowing out of the Brussels waffle shops, some telcos might be hesitant to charge forward. What’s the point in potential purchasing and deploying equipment if the rosy-cheeks regulators are going to make you tear it out of the network?

The European Commission wants Europe to lead in the digital economy, but for this to happen the connectivity infrastructure needs to be up to scratch. The telcos need consistency and certainty when it comes to policies if they are to spend billions. The Flemish food fanatics are hardly known for their agility but for the European digital economy to remain on-track any significant changes to the regulatory landscape will have to be set in stone sharpish.

Now you start to get a feel for the problem. Who knows what conditions will be put into place with new policies, especially if the public service ponderers want the wording to appear generic enough so China cannot accuse the bloc of targeting it specifically. The gluttonous government officials will have to skip a few free lunches and get a move on.

But how could the covetous civil servants ban Huawei sorry China sorry nefarious bodies from contaminating the 5G goldmine?

The first suggestion is rumoured to be an amendment to a 2016 cybersecurity law to heighten the security requirements for any company which wants to contribute to critical infrastructure. Germany is reportedly making similar amendments to heighten requirements, but to protect itself and also allow Chinese companies to participate. You can only assume any altercations at a European level would not be as welcoming, targeting companies who could potentially be influenced (irrelevant of any concrete evidence) by a nefarious government.

A second suggestion would be more related to procurement processes, though the gaggle of red-tapers will have to be careful here. Whenever regulators and legislators attempt to influence commercial processes too much there is often resistance from the private sector.

The revelation will certainly be of interest to the US, which has done its best to turn the world against the country which is challenging the Land of the Free for global supremacy. While government intervention might sound like a bit of a contradiction for a country which so proudly promotes the concepts of market freedoms and capitalism, we have stopped keeping check on how mental the US is becoming.

But perhaps this was the long-game from the US all along. It bans Chinese companies sharpish and then moves onto plant the seeds of doubt elsewhere knowing other countries would take a more considered and evidence-based approach to such a massive decision. With the Europeans dithering, the US can race ahead with 5G deployment, attract the most innovative companies to establish R&D sites within its own border and all of a sudden it dominates the 5G economy just like it dominates 4G now.

Whatever the outcome, uncertainty is the enemy of progress. If they ban Chinese companies or if they don’t, the bureaucrats need to decide quickly. Regulations need to be set in stone to allow the telcos to consider all the implications and make commercial decisions. Uncertainty is only going to stutter rollouts and damage the influence of Europe on the digital economy.

And for Huawei, 2019 seems to be going from bad to worse.

Huawei faces 5G ban in Australia over security concerns

Having already been shut out from the country’s National Broadband Network, as well as getting the cold shoulder from tier one operators, the prospect of being locked out of the 5G euphoria in Australia is getting real for Huawei.

With the anti-China sentiment overflowing from the US, other countries are now starting to catch the bug, though there should be little surprise Huawei is facing challenges in the Australian market, having done so since 2012. John Lord, Chairman of Huawei’s Australian business, has now warned about the detrimental effect to local businesses and competition in the market, though whether the company has done enough to turn around the negative feeling is looking suspect.

According to the FT, Lord has rejected claims it is a puppet for the Chinese government, and highlighted the importance of the company for 4G and delivering mobile broadband across the country.

“It would have huge significance for Huawei in Australia because at the moment most of our business is 4G and we are providing over 55% of Australia’s 4G requirement across the whole nation,” said Lord.

Anti-China sentiment, in particular Huawei, is not new in Australia as the firm has faced an uphill battle for years. Back in 2012, Huawei was told “not to bother tendering” for a stake in the rollout of the National Broadband Network by Tony Sheehan, Deputy Secretary of the Attorney-General’s Department, over security concerns. The firm had offered concessions, one of which would be Huawei would only hire Australian citizens, though this made little difference.

Despite being almost entirely owned by Huawei employees, the firm has not been able to shake-off assumed ties to the Chinese government, owing to the fact it’s its Founder, Ren Zhengfei, was once an officer in the People’s Liberation Army. Reports have regularly emerged over the years tying Huawei to nefarious ambitions from the Chinese government, however these concerns have certainly intensified since President Trump assumed office in 2017.

Labor Party MP Michael Danly is the man leading the campaign against not only Huawei, but also ZTE this time around. Speaking to the Australian Parliament, Danly said Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull should take the same approach as in 2012:

“Now he [Turnbull] and his government must resist the blandishments of commercial interests backed by apparently incompetent advice from bureaucrats who don’t understand the implications of the sale of the 5G network to state-owned enterprises or China-based companies who are effectively controlled by Beijing, and I’m talking about Huawei and ZTE.

“Whatever instructions might be issued for Australian sovereignty by Australia after the fact, it will be compromised if we sell the construction of our new central communications 5G network to companies effectively controlled by an authoritarian government whose leader has recently been made dictator for life.”

The US might be stealing the headlines with its anti-China mission, but there are certainly others who are showing the same prejudice. Perhaps this is simply a game of political ping-pong with nations becoming frustrated with the rigid approach to international relations and trade from the Chinese, and once concessions are made the aggression towards Huawei will ease off. But then again maybe is won’t and the world’s leading telecoms vendor will struggle to replicate the 4G success in the 5G world.