India still wary of Huawei's 5G despite 'no back door' pledge

Rahul Satija | Jul 1, 2019 | 5 min read


The Indian government is still sceptical about Huawei’s entry to the 5G trial and is doubtful about the assurances given by Jay Chen, Chief Executive Officer Of Huawei, regarding their willingness to sign a “no back door” agreement with the government, according to government sources.

A back door is a point of access in a network by which the network provider can get into it during emergencies, or whenever required. By signing a “no back door” agreement, Huawei would not be able to gain entry to the point of access even in an emergency.

“The government is in no hurry to make a decision on Huawei’s entry into the 5G trial. It would be consulted with all the relevant stakeholders before making a final call. There are suspicions about the assurances given by Huawei. The “no back door” agreement they are proposing is very doubtful,” a source in the Prime Minister’s office told Nikkei.

Earlier this month, Ravi Shankar Prasad, the newly appointed Telecom Minister of India, said the government is taking a serious look on Huawei’s entry into the 5G trial.


A source in the Department of Telecommunication (DoT) said, “A committee has been set up by the government to examine the security aspects of the Huawei’s network. The “no back door” pact would overcome some of the concerns, but not all. Moreover, the department itself is split over Huawei’s entry.”


Huawei’s dark past?

The Indian telecom market is one of the fastest-growing in the world, which is projected to grow to $103.9 billion by 2020, according to a report by Market Research Store.


As reported by Nikkei, the Indian government was looking for a middle approach in which Huawei would be awarded contracts only in the interior of the country far from geopolitically-sensitive regions. The source from the DoT further added, “The middle approach option is the most likely option that what would be taken.”


Vinal Wakhlu, former chairman and managing director of the government-owned Telecommunications Consultants India Limited, believes that the damage done by Huawei could not be overcome by such promises. At many instances during the hacking of Bharat Sanchar Nigam Limited (BSNL), government’s own Telecom network, Huawei would be seen as a culprit.  In fact, in 2009, there was an unofficial order from the Ministry of Home Affairs to not to use Chinese equipment like that of Huawei or ZTE in areas close to the international borders.


“The damage done by Huawei in the past cannot just be healed by such promises. These promises aren’t convincing. What needed is for India to have a robust test mechanism for Telecom equipment. So that they can tackle threats whether from Huawei or Nokia,” Wakhlu told Nikkei.

In 2014, Huawei was allegedly involved in a hacking incident in BSNL’s network in Andhra Pradesh. A committee was set up by the government to probe in the matter. However, no outlasting results came out of the investigation.


The Indian Telegraph Act, 2017, states the mandatory testing of telecom equipment being sold or imported to India. But according to Gl Jogi, a retired senior officer from BSNL, India has lacked far behind in building a robust security system.


The government had promised to set up security testing labs by 2013, but they are still not ready, Jogi said, adding that even after dozens of hacking incidents, the government has made almost no effort to tackle the threats.


Many experts suggest that Trump’s provocation behind banning Huawei is much more than the mere national security threat it could pose. Huawei played a limited role in the 3G and 4G network but now has been working for years to create a mark in the 5G space which is expected to be worth $1.2 trillion by 2026, according to networking giant Ericsson. 

Currently, Huawei faces competition from Sweden’s Ericsson, Finland’s Nokia and South Korea’s Samsung. However, in the market of providing 5G chips, USA’s Qualcomm comes in. Many experts believe the move by US President Donald Trump also comes as a huge business opportunity and to win the battle of controlling the world’s data.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the US President met during the G20 summit in Osaka, Japan and discussed Huawei’s inclusion in 5G trials. Trump administration has already barred the use of Huawei products in critical infrastructure and security establishments. 


Other than the US, Huawei is currently banned from Australia, New Zealand and Japan while many others are still to take a decision. It has been able to capture the market of Russia and Saudi Arabia. Even after the downfall, Huawei has still been growing steadily. In 2017, various reports suggested its revenue of $92.549 billion. 

Six weeks after Huawei was blacklisted by the US government. President Donald Trump, at the G20 summit in Japan, announced to lift the ban from American companies to sell equipment to Huawei. He stated that the move would barely affect the National Security concerns.


This soft stand of Donald Trump’s on Huawei may even be reflected in the decision of the Indian government on Huawei’s entry, according to the source in DoT.


“Trump administration’s recent decision on Huawei tells us about the softer stand that the administration is taking. This also indicates that India would not be facing much of the US pressure regarding its decision on 5G trial,” the source further added.


Can India ban Huawei?

An engineer in the Telecommunications Engineering Center—part of DoT—said that Huawei is way cheaper than its counterparts. During a recent bid with Qualcomm, they suggested a price which was four times cheaper. According to Vakhlu, this has been the reason due to which Huawei has emerged as an essential player in the telecom sector of India. Many experts believe that due to its low price, and an already well-established market in India, it may be difficult to ban Huawei completely. 


Currently, 90% of the telecom equipment in India is imported. So, concerns regarding spyware are here to stay. What needed for India is to strengthen its ability to measure for such spyware.

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