Turnbull’s 5G Sputnik moment

Malcolm Turnbull, the most recent of many Australian former Prime Ministers, has called for the US and its “Five Eyes” allies to take urgent steps to create a home-grown 5G network builder.

As Prime Minister, one of Turnbull’s last decisions was the banning of Chinese network vendors (ie. Huawei and ZTE) from building Australia’s 5G networks for any of its mobile operators.

He also revealed his request to US President Trump :

“I encouraged the president to take the lead and ensure that we had at least one viable and secure 5G vendor from the United States and its five-eyes partners,”

Turnbull seems to be calling for the US-led Western Alliance to recognise the challenge of Chinese technology development as another “Sputnik” moment. The launch of the world’s first man-made satellite in 1957 by the Soviet Union was the moment that galvanised US public opinion to support a huge investment in technology to ensure the West would not be left behind in the dawning Space era.

The creation of NASA and the Apollo program demonstrated US leadership in technology and military matters. It also had huge spin-offs for other industries such as aeronautical and semiconductors where the US retains significant leadership today.

But is the call by Turnbull and others in the West regarding the 5G technology threat really another Sputnik moment?

Firstly, is there really a demonstrable gap in the technology capabilities between China and the West?

Huawei is definitely a leader in the telecommunications field with continued strong growth. This is despite the clear threat imposed by the Anglo-Saxon based Five Eyes intelligence community (ie. US, UK, Canada, New Zealand and Australia) in its push for Western alliance members to deeply consider the use of Chinese technology in 5G networks.

While there is no 5G network builder with headquarters in the Five Eyes community countries, the Scandinavian based companies Nokia and Ericsson, do have large R&D and operational functions based in the US and Western Europe. Both Nokia and Ericsson have excellent technology pedigrees and are fully committed to the 5G ecosystem.

Furthermore, the US has companies that dominate the key underlying radio, cloud and optical technologies, such as Qualcomm, Intel, Broadcom and a vibrant industry of smaller specialised companies.

These underlying component technologies are critical for telecommunication network builds as was seen during the ban on US vendors supplying ZTE in 2018. The supply chains for the technologies are long and intricate and specialised components are vital for the building of all networks and especially the brand-new 5G networks.

The big name brands of Huawei, Nokia and Ericsson rely on an international network of suppliers in which the US is strongly positioned.

Even more importantly for 5G is the fact that the standards for the ecosystem are open and available globally. In fact Huawei, Ericsson, Nokia and many others have collaborated over more than a decade to ensure the 5G equipment they supply is interoperable with each others’ equipment. The large mobile network operators (eg. AT&T, Verizon, British Telecom, Deutsche Telekom etc) have demanded such openness for decades in telecommunications to ensure competition drives innovation and keeps pricing efficient.

Unlike with the Sputnik moment, the prospect that China can dominate the global 5G network ecosystem like the Soviet Union threatened to dominate space appears far-fetched.

So the next argument is whether the cybersecurity threat of having Chinese sourced equipment used in the digital infrastructure of a Western country can amount to a national security issue.

This is a more difficult argument to analyse because it naturally involves the question of cyber espionage and cyber warfare. These issues that are inherently related to how well a country can protect its key assets from unauthorised cyber intrusion. In the 21st century these are critical issues of not only national defence, but also for corporations and individuals.

Does having equipment, with its accompanying software, sourced from a potential future foreign adversary create national security risks that cannot be mitigated?

This answer will depend largely on the cyber security capabilities of the country that is a potential target. All critical infrastructure such as electricity, transport, water as well as telecommunications needs to be defended. Today, and increasingly in the future, all of these assets are essentially monitored and managed by software and digital communications.

As the corporate and political (ie. the US Democrats) sectors know by now very well, the weakest links in defending these assets in a digital environment are the human beings themselves that use the digital networks to access and manage these assets. Simple passwords, phishing emails and disgruntled former employees are the vectors that allow cyber intrusion most easily and effectively.

Counter cyber intelligence at the national level needs to seriously monitor all critical assets for intrusions and probe for weaknesses in their defences. This is necessary to stop not only threats on the national security level but also to protect against rogue cyber “terrorists” who could wreak havoc to civilian populations.

The presence of Chinese equipment and software in these critical infrastructure assets is unavoidable. Equipment and software sourced from China is omni-present in practically every type of digital device in industrial and personal use. A blanket ban on Chinese equipment is clearly impossible and would not remove existing equipment anyway. The only way to have avoided this would have been keeping China out of the globalised digital ecosystem from the beginning. The horse bolted on this back in the 1980s and 1990s.

Comprehensive cyber defence initiatives are the only way of protecting today’s societies from national and rogue cyber intrusions that can jeopardise our economy and social fabric. Selective banning of equipment in certain industries will only lead to a false sense of security.

It seems many of the Western allies of the US and Australia are coming to a similar conclusion. Germany and the UK are heading down a path of allowing Chinese 5G equipment vendors build networks under strict security regimes that aim to protect these assets from cyber intrusion. New Zealand is also signalling that the 5G ban is not a done deal.

It seems that many in the West are now taking the enhanced cyber defence approach rather than relying on an outright ban of Chinese equipment for 5G.

Turnbull is on the record as having met with Huawei’s founder Ren Zhengfei and rotating CEO / Chairman Guo Ping prior to becoming Communications Minister in 2013. At the time he was prepared to review the first national ban of Huawei equipment imposed for the Australian National Broadband Network (NBN) by the Rudd and Gillard Labor Governments.

However, he is now clearly of a very different view and is leading the charge on an international scale to pressure Australia’s Western allies to distance themselves from Huawei.

Turnbull is now calling for the creation of an Anglo-Saxon 5G vendor to match Huawei and presumably Nokia and Ericsson. This could even go as far as nationalisation of 5G in the US (perhaps an equivalent of NASA for 5G) as was mooted by some US national security officials in January 2018.

The big question is what has changed Turnbull’s mind in the intervening six years. Is he really so concerned by Australia’s cyber defence capability that he believes we are at another Sputnik moment? 

Disclosure : I was the Chief Technology Officer of NBN Co at the time of the initial ASIO advised ban of Huawei equipment for use in the Australian NBN in 2010 which later became public in 2012.