The next big leap in wireless telecommunications is coming.
The current standard for mobile networks is what the tech industry calls fourth generation, or 4G. But this will soon be overtaken by fifth generation, or 5G, wireless technology. 5G offers increased data transfer speeds and will connect many more devices with almost no delayed response when receiving and sending information.
One might think the issues surrounding the development of 5G would focus on questions like whether the government should build a nationalized 5G network, or the possible health impacts of additional radio-frequency radiation.
But one issue has come to dominate the 5G discussion: the Chinese telecommunications giant Huawei, and the use of its equipment in building our 5G infrastructure.
The place of Huawei in Canada’s 5G network, and the associated national security implications, will be a key issue for the next federal government.
Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer said if his party wins the October election he would ban Huawei from participating in Canada’s 5G wireless networks.
On July 30, Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale said there was no chance of an announcement before the election.
5G for users
Because the radio frequencies required for short-range 5G can’t pass through walls, the promise of higher speed and capacity will be achieved in dense urban areas through a massive increase in the number of cell antennas.
In order to recover the costs of installing the new equipment, telecom providers are already promoting 5G to urban customers as higher-speed wireless mobile and wireless home broadband.
For rural customers, the radio frequencies used will be able to travel longer distances. 5G will help solve the so-called “last-mile problem” of providing high-speed connectivity to remote locations where broadband service isn’t now available.
What will likely be more important, though, than what we experience on our personal devices, are 5G’s advantages in device-to-device communications.
5G will speed communications between autonomous vehicles, leading to safer driverless cars and improved traffic efficiency.
Rural areas will gain opportunities in remote industrial applications like agriculture and mining by connecting devices like field equipment, sensors, drones, robotics and other smart machinery.
And 5G can improve the delivery of telemedicine for remote real-time medical assessment, diagnosis and treatment.
There are five major players in the 5G equipment market today: Huawei, Ericsson, ZTE, Nokia and Samsung.
Canada has been generally very welcoming towards Huawei in the past, with its hardware and software widely used here for broadband and 4G wireless. Huawei’s position is due to a combination of its equipment’s quality and lower cost.
The United States claims Huawei is a threat to national security because of the as-yet-unproven claim that Huawei equipment contains a back door — a secret method for bypassing authentication or encryption in a computer system or device, allowing for surreptitious remote access.
Thus, the U.S. alleges, data that moves through Huawei equipment could be made available to Chinese intelligence services. The U.S. has taken steps to ban or restrict the use of Huawei equipment in its developing national 5G infrastructure, and is pressuring its allies to do the same.
This decision is complicated by a number of factors.
Tensions are high between Ottawa and Beijing stemming from the arrest of Huawei’s CFO Meng Wanzhou in Vancouver last December in response to a U.S. warrant, leading to the detention and arrest of former Canadian diplomat Michael Kovrig and entrepreneur Michael Spavor.
China also retaliated by restricting imports of Canadian soybeans, canola, pork and beef. Former Chinese ambassador to Canada Lu Shaye warned of further repercussions should Canada choose to ban Huawei.
The U.S. said a Canadian decision on Huawei that runs counter to American wishes will have negative repercussions on U.S.-Canada relations.
The U.S., the United Kingdom, Australia, New Zealand and Canada co-operate on security and intelligence in an alliance known as the Five Eyes. The U.K. is now considering whether to permit Huawei’s involvement in 5G, allowing some limited use of its next-generation wireless gear, in a move that could further damage the already-fractured alliance.
Investment and risk
Meanwhile, Bell and Telus, two major Canadian telecommunications companies, are heavily invested in Huawei technology for developing their 5G networks. If Canada bans Huawei, they could face $1 billion in costs to retool for 5G.
Those companies could then reasonably argue they should be relieved of the CRTC push for low-cost wireless options, or that they should provide smaller competitors with access to their networks.
Despite years of hearings, investigations and hardware inspections, there is no public evidence that Huawei equipment has been used to spy on network traffic.
But if Canada guessed wrong, the consequences could be catastrophic.
Who should Canada antagonize most?
Scheer’s no-Huawei stance mirrors the emerging mood of the country: a February 2019 online national survey by Research Co. found that 57 per cent of Canadians think the federal government shouldn’t let Huawei participate in 5G.
Regardless of the outcome of Canada’s upcoming federal election, Canada will likely do as it did with the Meng detention and accede to the American position.
If that happens, Canadians should expect a more expensive 5G system than with Huawei equipment plus the potential costs associated with a Huawei lawsuit and a further deterioration of the country’s relationship with China.
The alternative is a weakening of our relationship with the Americans and other allies, and living under a cloud of possible future catastrophic breaches of our wireless telecom networks.
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