Last April the Five Eyes intelligence sharing nations agreed not to use technology from the Chinese technology firm Huawei in the “sensitive” parts of their respective telecom networks. However, the British government has opted to go ahead with allowing Huawei to have access to “non-core” parts of the nation’s 5G network.

While the Chinese telecom company would be blocked from the core parts of the system, this move has caused a serious divide among the national intelligence of the United States, Canada, New Zealand and Australia.

In 2019, the United States placed trade restrictions on Huawei and blocked American companies from doing business with the Chinese firm. The U.S has said Huawei represents a major security risk due to allegations that the company has ties to the Chinese state and could be forced to spy for Beijing, something the company has strongly denied.

“We have serious concerns over Huawei’s obligations to the Chinese government and the danger that poses to the integrity of telecommunications networks in the US and elsewhere,” said Bill Evanina, head of America’s National Counterintelligence and Security Center as quoted by the BBC this week.

“Chinese company relationships with the Chinese government aren’t like private sector company relationships with governments in the West,” added Evanina.

It isn’t just the United States that has raised concerns either. The Australian and New Zealand intelligence agencies have raised red flags, while Canada is reportedly still considering.

The Five Eyes alliance was formed in 1946 among the five English-speaking nations as a way to share security information. The U.S., Australia and New Zealand all block the use of Chinese equipment from Huawei and ZTE from use in any government networks.

The UK’s relationship with Huawei dates back to the early 2000s, when British Telecom (BT) upgraded its networks and the Chinese-based firm was found to be far more affordable than rivals. While Huawei has been kept out of the core of the network, notably the sensitive systems, concerns over security have been an issue ever since.

Understanding the Importance of 5G

While many people know of 5G as simply the next generation of mobile phone networks, this technology is more than just providing faster streaming services to smartphones.

A 5G network connection is expected to provide download speeds that are 10 times faster than what 4G offers, and the long-term goal is to interconnect people as well as remotely control machines, objects and devices. 5G could lay the groundwork for the deployment of self-driving (autonomous) cars – and many technology analysts argue that self-driving cars won’t even be possible without 5G.

More importantly 5G could have a number of potential military applications, including command and control (C2), logistics, augmented and virtual reality for training, and for intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR).

An Alternative to Huawei

Given the importance that 5G could play in the world in the next decade, it is easy to see why some of the Eyes have serious concerns.

Even those within the British government see potential issues with the Chinese firm playing such a significant role in the deployment of Great Britain’s 5G networks. Tobias Ellwood, MP and chair of the Commons Defence Select Committee, told data analytics and consulting company GlobalData that members of the Five Eyes intelligence alliance need to work together to develop and alternative to Huawei.

“We have a China that is drafting, creating and following its own set of rules, quite aside from what are the norms of the international community, and that takes us to Huawei,” Ellwood explained in his interview with GlobalData, which will be published in the April issue of Verdict.

The problem begins at the lowest level of computer hardware.

“Just last week leaders of the U.S. Armed Forces speaking at the CSIS brought up semiconductor supply chain vulnerabilities,” explained Harry Lye, author of the report for GlobalData.

“While they were talking about developing new missiles rather than a 5G Huawei alternative, the two are an interesting comparison,” Lye told ClearanceJobs. “At the event, Secretary of the Army Ryan D. McCarthy said ‘We really don’t make those [semiconductors] in America anymore, and they’re in everything.'”

It isn’t entirely clear how exactly the Five Eyes could find an alternative, but one way would be to see what companies could step up and fill the void.

“When it comes to existing competitors to Huawei, Ericsson has said it is ahead of its competitors in terms of deployment,” added Lye.

Then perhaps a multi-national approach is needed.

“Ellwood suggested a program, modeled on the F-35, which could bring Western countries together to pool their funding to develop a sovereign 5G capability,” said Lye. “A lot of the concern around Huawei stems from whether or not the Chinese government could get access to Huawei’s information, concerns a Western alternative would not face.

“The White House is pushing for the development of an alternative to Huawei, with plans to develop a common set of standards for 5G to reduce the need for Huawei equipment,” Lye told ClearanceJobs. “In January a bill was also introduced in the Senate to set aside over a $1 billion to develop Huawei alternatives.”

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Peter Suciu is a freelance writer who covers business technology and cyber security. He currently lives in Michigan and can be reached at petersuciu@gmail.com.