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India's 5G dilemma: Hi Huawei or Bye Huawei?

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India's 5G dilemma: Hi Huawei or Bye Huawei?


In December, the government allowed the company to participate in trials for 5G networks. But there is uncertainty over allowing or banning Huawei because of intense American pressure to shut it out. The issue gains more significance due to the ongoing visit of US President Donald Trump in India.

India's 5G dilemma: Hi Huawei or Bye Huawei?
OPPO-backed Realme said it will launch a 5G-powered phone in India this month. Vivo's subsidiary iQoo is also scheduled to launch its flagship 5G phone a day after Realme.
The next generation of wireless mobile communication, which is expected to drive cutting-edge innovation, including transmitting large amounts of data from more objects and locations, has started trickling down to India. Or has it?
Remember, India's telecom industry has the shadow of unpaid dues hanging. There is no telling how that will play out.
The AGR issue is not the only one gnawing at the transition to 5G. A vital question is whether India should allow Chinese telecom company Huawei Technologies in the rollout of the technology. The company owns a 28 percent share of the global telecom equipment market.
In December, the government allowed the company to participate in trials for 5G networks. But there is uncertainty over allowing or banning the company because of intense American pressure to shut it out. The issue gains more significance due to the ongoing visit of US President Donald Trump in India.
The US says Huawei’s gear contained "back doors" that would enable China to spy on other countries. Beijing says not true.
Shenzhen-headquartered Huawei has been blacklisted by countries including the United States, Australia, and New Zealand. But Britain decided in January to allow Huawei to supply new high-speed network equipment. India is part of a bunch of countries still evaluating a decision on Huawei.
Before we go into whether India can afford to ignore Huawei in 5G networks, here is what you should know:
Put simply, 5G requires plenty of equipment. Be prepared to see smaller antenna boxes around you when 5G gets deployed. They could be on-road signals, lamp posts, attached to buildings, or even trees. Equipment comes at a cost.
This means big business for companies like Huawei. Deutsche Telekom estimates that 5G will generate 300-500 billion euros in growth for network equipment manufacturers in Europe alone. This will include new equipment for handling millimetre waves, small cell broadband units, and massive antenna arrays for MIMO.
Can India trust Huawei?
Huawei is at the forefront of 5G research and development. China lost an opportunity with 1G and 2G, learned an expensive lesson from its failed 3G standard, and had substantial catch-up to do with 4G.
It was determined it will not miss the 5G bus. Huawei has applied for 3,300 patents and 1,300 have already been issued.
Since 2007, it has invested massively in next-generation telecommunications, spending more than US$ 60 billion on research and development over the course of a decade. 
The company also has an edge over other players like Nokia, Ericsson, Qualcomm, and LG because of its pricing. It can leverage its massive production line in China to scale, and in turn, reduce costs.
However, the simple task of adopting the most affordable and reliable vendor for the technology has swiftly become a tangle. The US government banned Huawei from selling its phones in the country, alleging that its products could be used by China for snooping.
The US also barred the company from doing any business with American counterparts. Huawei’s close ties with Beijing have stoked suspicion that its equipment could be used to facilitate espionage, surveillance, and cyber attacks.
The US also wants its allies to distance themselves from Huawei. Australia and New Zealand have joined the US. Germany has put off making a decision. Even Britain will proceed with Huawei equipment, but only in non-core parts of the network.
The US argues China's 2017 National Intelligence Law, which says organisations must "support, co-operate with and collaborate in national intelligence work", means Beijing could force Huawei to do its bidding. Huawei maintains that it has never snooped on its users and will categorically refuse to comply.
But we can't ignore that China is different. The state controls everything at the end of the day.
Experts also say Huawei's claim of being the best in 5G is a tad exaggerated. Sure, the company has taken the leap, but that doesn't mean it is the only one that can deploy 5G. Several companies based in the US (Qualcomm), European Union (Nokia and Ericsson), South Korea (Samsung and LG), Taiwan (Mediatek and TSMC), and Japan (Hitachi) are also major providers throughout the supply chain.
Look at it this way: the threat from Huawei isn't just about corporate competition. It's about geopolitical power.
What can India do?
India’s existing telecom infrastructure is overloaded thanks to irrational pricing. The industry needs to improve its ARPU, cut down losses, reduce debt, and transform into financially healthy companies.
A delay in the roll out would not be so bad. Even though DoT is optimistic about a launch in 2020, two more years — at least — are required.
The Huawei dilemma is a reminder for India that it needs to skill its engineers better. India has millions but they lack skills.
India must start exploring 5G standards and equipment locally. China has hardly been a good neighbour.
India should also borrow a page from Viettel’s playbook. The Vietnamese company developed its own 5G equipment, enabling it to bypass Huawei. Viettel becomes the sixth global player to develop 5G equipment, the company said recently, putting it on the same plane with the likes of Sweden's Ericsson and Finland's Nokia.
India has taken baby steps. More than 200 researchers, students and teachers from across five Indian Institutes of Technology have joined forces over a Rs 300 crore project to develop 5G technology and its use cases in India.
The DoT-backed project is being billed as the biggest collaborative effort between these institutes and will aim to develop a comprehensive test-bed for 5G that can be used by telcos as well as the end consumer.
But that isn't enough. India needs a new team of experts that can build indigenous solutions.
If this one requirement can be fulfilled, billions of dollars will return to the economy, jobs will be created, and India will be truly independent in the wireless communication space.
Huawei itself offers lessons. As soon as the US barred Huawei from dealing with American companies, the Chinese company kickstarted work on its homegrown operating system, Harmony OS, to take on Google's Android.
India cannot leave manufacturing to others. Certainly not to a Chinese company.
Shivam Vahia is a developer by hobby and an avid aviation geek.
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