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Wednesday, 31 July 2019 11:29

Real reason for Australia's Huawei ban is now out in the open

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Real reason for Australia's Huawei ban is now out in the open Pixabay

The reason why the United States has told Australia to ban Chinese telecommunications equipment vendors Huawei Technologies and ZTE Corporation from bidding for contracts in the 5G network rollout is now out in the open: Washington plans to build a US$211.5-million military base for US Marines in Darwin.

Exactly why the US needs more bases in the area is a puzzle, given that the sole reason for bolstering American military muscle in the region is the rise of China. The US already has China ring-fenced with a number of bases, said to be as many as 40 in the region.

Given that the US now plans to have 2500 Marines training in Australia each year and intends to build a new port facility near Darwin, having Chinese vendors supply 5G equipment is not something that could be considered, mainly for political reasons.

The Australian Government, despite being elected by the citizens of this country, apparently owes more loyalty to the US Congress which is now debating the proposal for the Marine base. It was kept quiet until some impecunious ABC scribe started poking around. The American decision will be accepted with alacrity, of that one can be sure.

Despite all the scuttlebutt being spread around, nobody has advanced a single technical reason as to why Chinese 5G gear is any more dangerous than Swedish (Ericsson) or Finnish (Nokia) equipment.

The technical reason put out in public is that there is no separation between the core and the radio access network when it comes to 5G, as transparent a lie as ever was told. It has been shot down many a time, with the latest telco official to refute it being Andy Purdy, the chief security officer at Huawei USA.

Purdy, who addressed a conference in Sydney on Tuesday, pointed to a report from the analyst firm Ovum which pointed out that while 5G would mean that "core" parts of the network extended to the outer edges — traditionally the domain of the RAN — these could still be quarantined off.

The myth of no separation between the 5G core and RAN was started by the Australian Signals Directorate chief Mike Burgess who told The Australian in October 2018 that, "The distinction between core and edge collapses in 5G networks. That means that a potential threat anywhere in the network will be a threat to the whole network."

bases

American military bases around the world. Courtesy: The Coming War on China, a documentary by John Pilger

Adding to this myth was the former Australian prime minister Malcolm Turnbull, reputed to be a person with deep technical knowledge, but one who has been to found to have very little in the way of facts in his arsenal. (Turnbull, incidentally, was the one who championed the use of HFC for the NBN rollout.)

He boldly proclaimed at a conference in London: "Network function virtualisation and mobile edge computing means processing, or intelligence, will be distributed throughout the network, and the old distinction between the core and the RAN (or edge) will no longer be applicable."

Nigel Phair director of UNSW Canberra Cyber has joined the choir as well.

They were all called out by Professor Mark Gregory of RMIT University, who told iTWire some time back that this spreading of falsehoods by Burgess was "disappointing".

"Many nations have decided to utilise 5G equipment from one or more companies' separated core and radio access network solutions," said Gregory, a frequent commentator on network issues.

"There is flexibility afforded in the ITU standards for separation at the 5G edge if a network operator wishes to do so."

But then even if Gregory had kept quiet, seeing is believing and an actual 5G trial, carried out by New Zealand telco Spark and Huawei, demonstrated this separation for the world to see in 2018.

The trial used a Huawei 5G NR (New Radio on both the C-band and mmWave) and a 4G Radio Access Network, both of which were deployed by using dedicated hardware connected to the Cisco Evolved Packet Core, with each component isolated.

But myths don't die easily and Burgess has form in this regard: it was he who claimed at the time when Australia passed its data retention laws in 2015 that this would provide hackers with a big honeypot to infiltrate. At that time, Burgess was the chief information security officer of Telstra. The honey is still very much there and the only ones raiding it are a plethora of government agencies and NGOs.

However, evidence that there is nothing to fear from using Huawei equipment is of little use, when political decisions have been made. Australia has missed out on lower mobile prices due to this decision, with TPG Telecom shelving plans for a network after the Huawei ban was imposed. The telco had spent about $100 million on gear by then but ditched its plans.

Apart from the US and Australia, New Zealand has not gone down the Huawei path either, but still claims that it has not banned the use of the company's gear. Japan and South Korea are other nations that will avoid using the Chinese firm's equipment.

For the rest, it remains to be seen how it all plays out. By the end of the year, things should be much clearer, though one should not expect to see any evidence for the decisions being made.

Update: A Huawei spokesperson has pointed out that the company's products are not banned in South Korea and one 5G operator, LG U+ is using Huawei gear in its 5G services which have already been launched.

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Sam Varghese

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Sam Varghese has been writing for iTWire since 2006, a year after the site came into existence. For nearly a decade thereafter, he wrote mostly about free and open source software, based on his own use of this genre of software. Since May 2016, he has been writing across many areas of technology. He has been a journalist for nearly 40 years in India (Indian Express and Deccan Herald), the UAE (Khaleej Times) and Australia (Daily Commercial News (now defunct) and The Age). His personal blog is titled Irregular Expression.

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