Mobile communication technologies have leapfrogged through various innovations such as 2G, 3G, and 4G in order to keep pace with the ever-increasing need for more speed, data and voice traffic regulations.The Fifth Generation or 5G has emerged as the new kid on the block with a promise of improved speed, performance, efficiency, and cost. A broad range of industries with connected services from work to education to transportation will be redefined by 5G.

 

In traditional mobile communications networks, the primary goal has always been to enrich individual’s experience through communication technology services, be it messages, voice calls, video calls, internet or application services using smartphones. However, 5G would not only help improve the bandwidth, throughput and reduce the latency rate, but also deliver new levels of performance and efficiency that will empower users and bring an unprecedented change in the way industries and machinery work. 5G is a pre-requisite to unleash the full potential of the Internetof Things (IoT), that is, all web connected devices across sectors. In fact, research byIHS Markit states that there will be 125 billion internet connected devices by 2030, and 5G is the technology that will connect the vast majority of those devices to the internet.

 

As countries are moving towards 5G, Huawei has time and again boasted of being the top player in 5G networks across the world.This Chinese telecommunications giant is generally known as the “affordable and technologically advanced supplier.”At the same time, it is also at the centre of an ongoing battle between the United States (US) and China for technological dominance.Huawei’s close connection with the Chinese government has brought forth the fear that its equipment could be used for espionage, surveillance and even cyber disruption. This scepticism  has led to the banning of the company by the US and some of its allies like Australia. Moreover, there has been a constant pressure on many countries to either allow Huawei into their market and face pushback from the US or ban Huawei and face restrictions on market access for foreign products and businesses (so called “reverse economic sanctions”) from China.Thus, the need for adopting the mosteconomically suitable and reliable vendor for the technology has become a challenging task.

 

5G and India

 

India too is keen to board the 5G bus sooner rather than later. The country is not a major player in the telecommunication sector, either in the technology development or in manufacturing of equipment. Thus, the deployment of 5G will most likely be dependent on imports from foreign vendors.The task before the Indian telecom industry is to make sure that the advantages of the telecommunication technology and infrastructure assist its divergent demography, economic conditions and urbanisation.

 

In this context, in 2017, India’s Ministry of Communications organised a High Level Forum that hadstakeholders from ministries, academia, experts, and industry to formulate a charter for deploying 5G by 2020. The forum focusses on the possibilities of product design and development within the country and also generate Intellectual Property Rights (IPR) on the subject. The committee submitted its report by mid-2018, articulating policy recommendations on technology demonstration, 5G trials, and spectrum allocations. The report highlighted three priority areas in 5G,concerning its deployment, technology and manufacturing.

 

The Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) has come out with a white paper on 5G, comprehensively covering all aspects of the proposed architecture of the 5G network, policies and framework, and the challenges that the industry will face in implementing this new technology. This white paper outlined the spectrum requirement (3.5 GHz band is globally seen as a 5G spectrum band) and base pricing. However, in India, DoT (Department of Telecommunications) is yet to auction this spectrum.This means that Telcos in India that are already grappling with unsustainable levels of financial stress and brutal price competition would also have to bear the additional cost of buying spectrum to launch their 5G services. Apparently, TRAI has set the base price of 5G airwaves at INR 492 which is way more than the international prices.

 

Another challenge regarding the deployment of the technology has been that ofnetworksecurity,mostly because the 5G deployment in India would be entrusted upon foreign vendors that might create a possible threat of disruption and espionage.With India allowing Huawei to participate in 5G trials, the debate surrounding the company’s alleged proximity to the Chinese government and accusations of its hacking networks has now gained new grounds. 5G would be the facilitator of faster networks and hence would become a crucial component of India’scritical information infrastructure. Consequently, the cybersecurity of the 5G networks could be a challenge owing to the high levels of complexity and greater potential for damage in the case of an attack. Data confidentiality along with integrity and assurance on 5G networks would bring on another set of challenges to the country. In sum, future 5G networks could topple critical infrastructures like dominos in future smart cities, thus, posing a significant threat to nationalsecurity.

 

Whether India’s willingness to overlook Huawei’s track record highlights the country’s desperation to adopt the network or a long-term strategy of safeguarding its economic interests is something that time will tell.

 

The Way Forward for India

 

Undoubtedly, the technological move towards 5G woulddrastically alter the way individuals interact with technology on a day-to-day basis, but it would also be an absolute necessity if broadband is to continue. New Delhi believes that 5G can help the country leapfrog from the traditional barriers to development as well as advance the ‘Digital India’ vision, besides being a transformational force for the Indian society.

 

With Huawei, being time and again been called out for its theft of intellectual property, and its involvement in providing surveillance capabilities to the government of China,it is important for the country to tread carefully through this path. While vulnerabilities havealways been a major concern with 3G and 4G telecom industry since 90% of the telecom equipment relies on imports, and with 5G the stakes will be even higher.

India simply cannot kowtow to the international 5G politics without considering its own national interest first. Huawei has ramped up its efforts and has been closely working with the Indian government on issues related to 5G security and solutions.  Besides, Huawei has also stepped up to advocate to the industry to sign the “no backdoor agreement” to ensure network security.

 

For India, it is important to ensure that the design and implementation of 5G are being done in a holistic manner.While the home development of technology and equipment should be important and encouraged, it might take some time to come into reality. Additionally, India could take inspiration from the UK’s decision of allowing Huawei equipment in their 5G network but excluding it from “security critical” core areas.Nonetheless, the setupof secure networks within the nation must entail rigorous testing and screening, especially focusing on custom-made 5G use cases and applications enabled through active trials. Indeed, a thoroughexamination should be done on all areas of the production, construction, and management of the 5G networks, including screening of the security of all vendors and carriers. If an end-to-end approach to security is effectively implemented, 5G could prove more secure than the existing networks and critical infrastructure.However, the implementation of the network without proper security measures may pose a significant threat to national security.

 

Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article are personal.