offfstock - Fotolia

Malaysia takes broad base approach to 5G security

The country’s telco regulator is taking a industry-wide look at security implications of 5G, preferring not to target any particular supplier

As the world’s governments continue to scrutinise Huawei’s dominance of 5G technology development and whether or not its equipment allegedly presents security risks, Malaysia’s government isn’t rushing headlong into judgment, preferring to study the matter in detail before deciding what to do next.

In response to queries from Computer Weekly, the Malaysian Communications and Multimedia Commission (MCMC) said it has chosen to take “a broad look at the security compliance issues surrounding 5G and is not focused on any specific supplier” in its investigation.  

“5G will present new opportunities [for Malaysia] that at the same time open the door to a new set of risks,” an MCMC spokesperson told Computer Weekly. “Our overarching approach is to be able to manage those risks and not to focus on any specific supplier.

“[However], the MCMC is currently collaborating with the National Cyber Security Agency [NACSA] to engage with all mobile operators and equipment suppliers involved in 5G, aimed at identifying the risks to national security and to manage them accordingly.”

The move by Malaysia’s industry regulator is more measured and less drastic than that taken by several governments such as the US, Australia, Taiwan and New Zealand. These countries have since barred Huawei’s gear from being used in various degrees and at various levels in government in their respective countries.

New Zealand, however, is rethinking the issue, with its prime minister Jacinda Ardern recently saying that no final decision has been made on whether Huawei gear can be used in the country.

Countries such as Germany, Italy and India meanwhile have not decided yet if they will ban Huawei. The UK’s National Cyber Security Centre (NCSC) has signalled that it may allow Huawei to form core elements of the country’s 5G mobile network infrastructure.

The governments that have banned Huawei alleged that its equipment have backdoors and security compromises, which would allow the supplier to collect any data in any network using its gear and enable Beijing to use the data gathered to spy on them.

Huawei has publicly denied these allegations, claiming that the Chinese government has no ownership stake in or control of the company. One company official has even gone as far as to say that it has never and will never use software or information gathered globally to assist other countries in gathering intelligence.

In an extraordinary move on 18 February 2019, the normally reclusive Ren Zhengfei, founder and CEO of Huawei, went on a PR offensive to deny that the Chinese government would install any backdoors nor force Huawei to do the same.

“Our company will never undertake any spying activities. If we have any such actions, then I’ll shut the company down,” Ren told the BBC.

The US however continues to take a combative stance towards Huawei, with its secretary of state Mike Pompeo saying that the US may scale back or cut military and diplomatic ties with countries that use Huawei equipment in national 5G networks.

Malaysia’s position

The Malaysian prime minister Mahathir Mohamad has said that so far, Huawei has not run afoul of Malaysian laws, despite claims of spying by western governments.

Malaysia’s communications and multimedia minister Gobind Singh Deo had earlier said the MCMC is working on a report on the matter before the government decides if it will ban the use of Huawei’s 5G equipment.

Asked when would this report be ready, an MCMC spokesman said: “The MCMC, in joint-collaboration with NACSA, will be establishing a security and risk assessment process – in consultation with the National 5G Task Force, and will be submitting a report in due time.”

However, local media quoted MCMC chairman Al-Ishsal Ishak as saying that although no specific timeline was given for this exercise and that this assessment will involve a lot of work, “the MCMC definitely looks forward to making this assessment ready by this year”.

The Malaysian Armed Forces is also weighing in on the issue, noting that it is currently reviewing and identifying any security threats from the use of 5G, and will submit its findings to the government, local media reported.

Most Southeast Asian operators are looking for a solution partner which can offer low-cost, but at same time quite advanced offerings, and Huawei fits the bill
Neil Shah, Counterpoint Research

Meanwhile, Huawei Malaysia declined to comment on the ongoing investigation by MCMC when quizzed by Computer Weekly.

Several mobile operators Computer Weekly spoke to were coy in their responses as to whether they are re-evaluating the use of Huawei’s equipment for their next-generation 5G network plans., owner and operator of Digi Telecommunications, noted that “it had a multi-suppler strategy operating its network it regularly assesses, a move that has so far served it well”.

“We continue to closely monitor the situation with Huawei to assess any potential impact,” said a spokesperson. “Our main priority is to ensure that we continue to deliver the best products and services to our customers.”

Celcom Axiata, a unit of regional player Axiata Group, also alluded to its multi-supplier policy, which the company said would help it hedge against any unexpected situations with regard to its 5G roll-out. Celcom Axiata is trialling 5G gear from Huawei and Ericsson, in addition to using these suppliers’ 4G equipment.

“The Huawei [situation] is a global problem that impacts all the industry, and not just us,” said Idham Nawawi, the CEO of Celcom Axiata, in an interview. “If the worst happens [Huawei gets banned in Malaysia], our multi-supplier policy makes it easier to handle the situation.

“For now, we are still observing the situation with Huawei and the government closely, and we hope it’ll be settled soon so that we can plan accordingly.”

Aside from Celcom, Maxis has also publicly committed to Huawei, which signed a memorandum of understanding on 25 February 2019 at the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona. Maxis said in a statement that both parties will work to speed up the roll-out of 5G technology in the country, working on full-fledged trials with end-to-end systems and services.

Neil Shah, research director at Counterpoint Research, said it appeared the Malaysian government remains open to allowing Huawei to go forward with its 5G deployment, which signifies that there shouldn’t be any concern for Huawei in near term.

That said, Shah acknowledged that it will require significant lobbying effort from Huawei’s end for them to cement its position and relationship with the government and operators through the support of their current [3G/4G] infrastructure.

“So if it can be proven that there there are no backdoors in its 5G gear, Huawei shouldn’t be concerned in the longer term,” he said in an email.

Impact to Huawei

To date, there has been no direct evidence linking Huawei to the alleged spying capabilities of its equipment. Although the fallout of this debacle has yet to fully play out, CEO Ren believes that its business may slow down but remained adamant that the company “will not be crushed.

Shah said that geopolitics aside, Huawei is in a very strong position in terms of its end-to-end 5G portfolio, from chipset, handset devices, to the radio and core network.

“Most Southeast Asian operators are looking for a solution partner which can offer low-cost, but at same time quite advanced offerings, and Huawei fits the bill,” he said.

Asked what kind of business impact Huawei would face, Shah said the bans by certain western governments may set a precedent and may give Southeast Asian operators some extra buying power and perhaps pressure Huawei to sell its gear cheaper.

“So Huawei might face short-term cost pressure, but over the long run it can maximise its business potential by offering end-to-end solutions,” he said.

Quizzed as to whether the ban on Huawei would benefit rivals Ericsson, Nokia and Samsung, and if so, where the opportunities lay for them, Shah argued that it would take time for these competitors to pick up the slack, which could delay some of the 5G roll-outs in Malaysia.

He said Malaysian operators already invested with LTE-Advanced/A-Pro infrastructure with Huawei, with a possible upgrade path to 5G, would expect to face a costly switching bill.

“Operators that planned to work with Huawei would possibly face costlier equipment as Ericsson, Nokia and Samsung may have increased selling power.”

As for opportunities, Shah said as most of Huawei’s security issues centre on the core network and not the radio access network, these rivals should focus on solutions such as network function virtualisation, as well as operations and business support systems.

Read more about 5G in APAC

Read more on Telecoms networks and broadband communications

Data Center
Data Management