Recently the Department of Telecom (DoT) has given in-principle approval to various players, including Chinese Huawei to conduct 5G trials in India. Dr. Ashwani Mahajan
5G is the fifth generation wireless technology for digital cellular networks. We understand that the mobile phones we use are backed by the technology networks. There has constantly been advancement in the technology for cellular networks. In the recent years we have seen advancement from 2G, 3G and 4G. Now the efforts are on to upgrade these networks with 5G technology.
So far in India these technologies have been provided mostly by foreign players including Huawei, Ericsson, Nokia, ZTE etc. However, significant section of India’s telecom networks is controlled by Chinese companies, such as Huawei and ZTE. Unfortunate part of the whole story is that though domestic Indian companies meet world class standards and even have been outbidding Chinese competition in foreign markets, they have been denied the chance to compete in their own markets. As a result all the value creation is taking place in China while the Indian ecosystem is deprived of value-added high-tech production and good jobs.
Recently the Department of Telecom (DoT) has given in-principle approval to various players, including Chinese Huawei to conduct 5G trials in India. Though the in-principle approval might not mean that the actual contract is given to Huawei, but this is very discouraging as it is not only a big concern for national security, it is a step against domestic players. They will always be suspicious that the Chinese company managed the foot inside the door and could undercut the price to win the project. It is notable that Huawei has been banned in several countries as more and more countries realise the full implications of having Huawei and Chinese companies in their communication networks. There are ample evidence that lead to suspicion of Chinese companies indulging in the exfiltrating sensitive information from devices and equipment that it exports. Many of these countries suspect that the Chinese companies indulge in stealing massive amounts of military and technological secrets through cyber-hacking from various countries. We all understand that these Chinese companies are also bound by Chinese Intelligence law to share intelligence with their government. Therefore, the presence of the Chinese companies in our telecommunications networks would compromise our national security.
There is a misinformation, deliberately been floated with cohesion of some bureaucrats that India doesn’t have pool of talent to provide the 5G and 6G solutions. This is not true. In fact, there are series of entrepreneurs working extensively on this. An Indian company has patented their 6G concept in the US. At this stage, these entrepreneurs need patronage of the government to accelerate their growth. This will armor India to build the infrastructure to take fruits of leap in the technology, that too without compromising security. The countries, who have grown big in the telecommunication equipment manufacturing, have always groomed their domestic players. Even Huawei took $75 billion from the Chinese establishment.
It is notable that Chinese establishment does not allow market access to the foreign telecom companies to provide them neither the equipments nor the software. We too must push the clause of reciprocity here.
It is not that the government does not understand the dangers emanating from the 5G technology rolled out by Chinese companies. The former telecom secretary Aruna Sundararajan assured that the DOT is keeping a close eye on these developments happening across the globe. The partnering with this Chinese major will be allowed only after ensuring that there is no compromise on the security. We as a country are yet not sure of relying on Huawei. Globally, the Chinese companies, including Huawei, are facing allegations that they ‘underbid’ projects, and position themselves and their establishment back home to snoop and enable them to shut remotely, if required be. The Chinese dominance in India’s telecommunication sector is very damaging. It not only is creating a security threat but are also killing opportunities for our indigenous players.
Advise by security and scientific bodies
There is nothing more secure than the indigenous equipment. Recently, member of country’s National Security Advisory Board, Professor Veezhinathan Kamakoti, expressed, the security vulnerabilities are inherent in any foreign electronic equipment in general, and 5G equipment in particular, which increases the risks exponentially. He recommends that security can only be guaranteed by 100 percent indigenisation. Indian companies have the capability to build a 100% secure 5G and even 6G networks and have won orders against stiff Chinese competition abroad.
K Vijay Raghavan, who is the Principal Scientific Adviser and also heads high-level committee on 5G, has said that India should “go for (5G) trials immediately with all, except China.” Huawei has long been suspected of having close ties with China’s ruling communist party and there are concerns that a backdoor could be placed in Huawei’s equipment to spy on people.
The committee for 5G trials comprises the Intelligence Bureau (IB), Ministries of External Affairs, Home, Telecom and IT and the Department of Science and Technology. As per the report, all of them have agreed on placing safeguards while dealing with Huawei.
Indian companies at disadvantage
- Chinese companies with massive support from the Chinese government are allowed to vastly underbid Indian companies and win tenders for critical infrastructure.
- Chinese companies are also able to evade customs duties.
- Indian companies are not paid their dues by the Department of Telecommunications.
- Indian bidders are also forced to adhere to specifications that are not operationally required but are met only by MNCs.
Therefore, we can conclude that Indian companies are discriminated against and do not have a market in their own country. They hardly get any support from Government while the industries of other countries get full Government support. Moreover, China has several barriers to Indian companies operating in their telecom market.
Indian companies have world-class indigenous capabilities. Despite their winning tenders abroad, even against Chinese competition, and the excellence of their products, they are struggling domestically as Government bodies bypass them in favour of lucrative contracts with Foreign Owned Electronic Manufacturers (FOEMs) and Chinese companies. Many have been acquired by foreigners and others have folded. Their Intellectual Property Rights (IPRs) which should have been Indian owned are now located abroad.
What should we do?
The only solution is to fully indigenise India’s Telecommunications Network and reserve it for Indian companies on security grounds, which cannot be challenged in the WTO. Following steps would be needed to help indigenisation of telecom sector:
- India must recognise the full extent of the national and economic security threat posed by foreign and especially Chinese equipment in India’s Information and Communication Networks (ICT).
- Telecommunications must be declared a critical and strategic infrastructure vital to India’s security, so that bans on imports cannot be challenged in the World Trade Organisation (WTO).
- Only indigenous equipment must be procured for telecom networks and the recently released procurement guidelines of the Department for Promotion of Industry and Internal Trade must be strictly adhered to. To begin with all Government and PSU procurement must be made from indigenous manufacturers. Orders diverted from Public Sector Units (PSUs) to private telcos must be restored to PSUs on the condition they procure from domestic manufacturers.
- Chinese imports can also be banned for Govt. procurement under clause 10d of the DPIIT policy on Make in India.
- Conflict of interest in Govt. appointed bodies overseeing tenders which result in awards to foreign companies after imposing unfair criteria on Indian companies must be probed, exposed and prosecuted.
- If tenders are fixed to exclude Indian companies complaints should be lodged and the tenders cancelled.
- A Buy Indian Act and Telecom Security Act must be adopted by India’s Parliament, like the US, Australia and New Zealand’s Security and Buy Domestic Acts.
- Payments to Swadeshi telecom companies must be expedited so that they stay afloat and continue investing in R&D.
- If India adopts 5G, it should be totally indigenous. The Cloud component of 5G Core (i.e. apps, infra, and data in cloud) must be located in India. Since India will have to pay royalties even for indigenously built 5G equipment, therefore compulsory licensing can be introduced.
- The proceeds for 5G spectrum sale must be channelled to a Fund that would invest in R&D for indigenous 5G /6G tech development in the Private Sector. Allocation from the Fund should also be made for the development of next-gen technologies in the Private Sector. Full support for R&D for 6G development in which Indian companies have secured patents must be provided by Government. China has allocated trillions of dollars for R&D.
- The security and resilience of the 5G system rests on continuous threat and risk analysis – so it must incorporate an Indian Threat Intelligence System.
- A national policy on Standard Essential Patents (SEPs) must be implemented.
India can certainly become an export and manufacturing hub for the whole world and present a viable alternative to China. Indian Products will always be trusted more than Chinese equivalents. The Chinese have been caught bugging the African Union headquarters and Huawei has been helping authoritarian African governments spy on their own citizens. India can position itself as a viable secure and safe alternative and can prevent the misuse of cyber means against the peoples of the world and help protect the freedoms of the world’s people.
In addition, the stimulus provided by domestic procurement will give a massive boost to the Indian economy and bring it out of stagnation. Imports and FDI that simply acquires existing assets have failed to do so and discouraged job creation and domestic value addition. All-round domestic procurement will give the much needed push for revival of the Indian economy.