In the midst of the turmoil caused by climate-activists shutting down important parts of the Canadian economy, and Justin Trudeau’s ongoing failure to even try to act like a grownup, much less like a leader, other issues are liable to be forgotten. But, I see, according to an article in the Globe and Mail, that “Telus Corp. says it will begin building out its fifth-generation wireless networks this year with gear from Huawei Technologies Co. Ltd., even as it awaits the outcome of a federal security review.” The article goes on o say that “With this move, Telus is betting that the government will allow Huawei equipment to be used in 5G networks … [because] … Telus has long said it prefers to have the option to use Huawei equipment, which it uses for its existing networks and is known to be cheaper than other suppliers’ gear … [and] … The [Telus] model – of restricting Huawei gear from the sensitive core parts of the networks – is similar to approaches being adopted in order countries, including Britain and Germany,” a senior executive said.
But there is a fly in the financial ointment. US officials and legislators have been delivering “stern warnings” about allowing Huawei into any of our networks, even threatening to ban Britain and Canada from the ‘Five Eyes‘ intelligence-sharing relationship, something which is very worrying to senior intelligence, security and defence officials, including, I suspect, the most senior officials in the Privy Council Office.
There is a somewhat fundamental difference between the existing 4G system (which is really just an evolution of the 3G standards developed in the 1990s) and the new 5G systems. As one expert observer points out, also in the Globe and Mail, “Britain’s recent decision not to ban Huawei from its IT systems came as a surprise to many people in that field. That’s because the announcement described a 4G system configuration for the country’s new 5G system. But 5G simply doesn’t work that way … [because] … A 4G system consists of a clearly defined “core” or hub that stores, processes and redirects the data, and an “edge” of towers and antennas closer to the user. Sensitive data is kept in the core where its security can be protected. In Canada’s 4G system, Huawei is allowed to sell equipment only to the part of the system described as the edge where data is not as sensitive … [but] … there is no distinct core and edge in 5G systems that must support extremely fast response times. Sensitive data for telemedicine, virtual reality and autonomous vehicles will be kept in thousands of places closer to users with Internet of Things services 10 times the speed of old 4G systems. And the carrier will calibrate and adjust across the system to ensure it is always working at maximum efficiency. IT vendors will have exposure across the network in a much more complex and nuanced system. There is no edge to which Huawei can be confined.”
The most modern 4G systems are not much different in layout from what we used to call POTS ~ the Plain Old Telephone Systems. When I was a boy we had a telephone on the wall that was connected, by landline, to a switchboard, called the central office. There were regional central offices for voice telephones and others for telegrams and, later, when Telex came online the telephone company’s automated central office switched it, too. That’s what Margaret McCuaig-Johnston means by the “core” of the 4G system. She means that our current 3G/4G system looks a bit like this (grossly oversimplified) ⇒. We still have telephones (albeit very fancy and often “smart” telephones) that are connected to central offices, but now by radio waves instead of wires. But, as Ms McCuaig-Johnston explains “The problem is that 5G doesn’t function as 4G does. Where the core in 4G has hardware to manage the routing of data and calls to the right equipment at the edge, and keep sensitive data secure, in 5G routing is done through software that is more vulnerable to attack. Encryption will help somewhat but cannot prevent attempts to interfere with the flow of data, insert bad code or shut down parts of the system. As 5G rolls out in Britain, it will not be possible to keep Huawei at a safe distance from sensitive data.” 5G is, simply, too different, the “core” and the “periphery” are no longer distinct and separate, they are mashed together ~ it is a true meshed network. There is still some distinct “core” elements but an awful lot of “core” functions are, in 5G, done by peripheral (subscriber) equipment without needing to go the “core” but still being connected to it. gain, at the risk of grossly oversimplifying …
… all those blue circles are peripheral equipment using software to do “core” functions and having (maybe somewhat restricted) access to the (now dispersed) “core,” proper.
Notwithstanding what one might think about the US case that Huawei is little more than an arm of the Chinese Signals Intelligence/Information Warfare agencies, it is a technological powerhouse. The fact that “US Attorney General William Barr, a former top lawyer for Verizon … floated the notion of pushing members of the technology and telecom industries to invest in Ericsson and Nokia when speaking to a crowd at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, DC,” suggests that senior US officials know that China has taken the technological lead in 5G. It also makes one wonder if companies that rely upon Ericsson and Nokia or Samsung for their 5G services, as Bell and Rogers will do here in Canada, will roll out an inferior product.
5G is mainly about the Internet of Things, including autonomous vehicles. Getting it right will have major implications for many countries. Huawei (China) is perceived, by some experts, to be leading the field. Samsung (Korea) is often seen as a close second and Ericsson (Sweden) and Nokia (Finland) are seen as tied for third. Do you notice which countries are not there, in the top tier, at all? That may be why, I guess, Germany and the United Kingdom are going to try to allow Huawei to have some role in their networks. I am too far away from my second career, in the radiocommunications standards field, to offer any really useful comment.
But, I suspect, technology is not the key issue. In the immediate term, for Canada (and Britain) preserving our strategic and political-economic relationships with the USA must be to all other things as ten is to one. America has decided to wage an economic and trade war with China. That may or may not be a good idea, it doesn’t matter, it’s here. Britain might be trying to hedge its bets a bit. Britain may be able to manage that, but I doubt it. Canada, I suggest, does not have that option. Canada has two choices: onside with the USA, or offside. In this game, being offside puts us in the penalty box.
The Trudeau-Freeland Liberals might want to appease China and please the strong pro-China business lobby in Canada (which is, sometimes, run by powerful Liberal insiders) but, eventually, I suspect that the geopolitical and economic realities ~ which is that the USA matters … and while China does, too, it matters much, much less ~ will hit home. The Huawei/5G decision is a “no-brainer.” There is no real dilemma at all. Canada may have to settle for a slightly less than great 5G system and then work hard to make 5G+ or 6G work better, in order to preserve our political, economic and strategic relationship with Donald J Trump’s USA.
I suspect Justin Trudeau has been told that so often, often enough that even he might understand. I think he and his ministers and officials are just playing for time so that they can make the announcement at the least painful moment. For the sake of Telus shareholders, which might be you and me through our pension funds, I hope it is sooner rather than later.