A cameraman records during Huawei stream product launch event in Barcelona, Spain. Picture: REUTERS/Nacho Doce
A cameraman records during Huawei stream product launch event in Barcelona, Spain. Picture: REUTERS/Nacho Doce

The government has come out in support of Chinese telecommunications firm Huawei, in spite of recent fears that it has a plan to rebuild the internet.

The Financial Times (FT) reported last month that Huawei and China proposed to the UN a radical change to the way the internet works. Its plan claims to enable technologies such as holograms and self-driving cars, but critics say it will also build state surveillance into the architecture of the internet.

Some countries are concerned that the new standard, called "New IP", could splinter the global internet and give state-run internet service providers control over citizens’ internet use, the FT says.

But in an interview with the FM, communications & digital technologies minister Stella Ndabeni-Abrahams said: "We are pushing any agenda that will make sure that SA occupies its rightful place in the technology space."

Ndabeni-Abrahams says Huawei is still the best route that the country has to gain 5G internet speeds. And on the basis of that, the firm has the government’s backing.

Last year, President Cyril Ramaphosa gave his full support to the company, which was at the time embroiled in tensions over trade between the US and China.

The stand-off between Washington and Beijing left global companies and countries scrambling to choose sides. This was made especially difficult for ICT firms when US authorities effectively blacklisted Huawei from trading with US-based businesses without a special licence in mid-2019.

The restrictions were later eased.

In the new proposal, made to the UN’s International Telecommunication Union (ITU), Huawei describes the existing internet infrastructure, known as TCP/IP, as "unstable" and "vastly insufficient" to meet the requirements of the digital world by 2030.

Huawei says New IP is being developed to meet the tech requirements of a rapidly evolving digital world. It denies that it has built any type of control into its design.

Huawei and its co-developers are planning to push for the standardisation of New IP at an ITU meeting in India in November.

Nato, however, is one of the bodies that fears its implementation. It commissioned research from cyber security firm Oxford Information Labs, which says: "New IP would centralise control over the network into the hands of telecoms operators, all of which are either state-run or state-controlled in China. So, internet infrastructure would become an arm of the Chinese state."

Ndabeni-Abrahams says Huawei is still the preferred supplier for 5G in SA.

"So far, Huawei has been a leader in the 5G technologies and yes, we do have good relations with it, just like we have good relations with other companies.

"Nokia has started to showcase its work. Rain has also started to showcase its capabilities," she adds.

Ndabeni-Abrahams says the government will work with anyone who has the ability and willingness to upgrade technology in SA. "We just look at the intended impact, the cost, and whether a company’s product will help us to improve on where we were yesterday."

In spite of Ramaphosa’s very vocal support for Huawei last year, she says the government has not picked a side in the trade war. But she says: "We are looking at what works for us and who’s available to work with us."

Dobek Pater, director and analyst at ICT research firm Africa Analysis, says: "Huawei is certainly at the forefront of 5G."

He points to the fact that the company already has proof of concept experiments in place in cities such as Wuhan, infamous now as the origin point for Covid-19, where it is testing driverless public transport systems powered by 5G technology.

This allows such vehicles to have information, for example about roads, the environment and outside conditions, processed at a data centre and receive it in just fractions of a second, allowing for autonomous driving.

Globally, Huawei is competing with Nokia and Ericsson on 5G, though the former seems to be a more prominent competitor at this point, says Pater.

In SA, the Chinese company has a strong foothold as the majority of networks use its equipment, which further promotes its cause. This wasn’t always the case, as in the past Ericsson, Nokia and Siemens dominated the market. The Shenzhen-based player has been able to gain market share over time by offering high-quality equipment at cheaper prices among a host of factors, Pater says.

Meanwhile, Vodacom and Liquid Telecom expect to roll out a 5G network this year. Liquid Telecom, which now owns assets including spectrum that used to belong to Neotel, is the owner of that network which Vodacom will use.