Paradoxically, Huawei’s utter 5G dominance could be their weakness, and Decentralization could be the fix

6 Mins read

The recent move by the US government to blacklist Huawei has been causing a lot of commotion.

The decision by the US to ban Huawei has invited speculation as to the reasoning, although the main point cited by the Trump administration is the issue of national security. While the whole situation is multi-faceted, the trepidation amongst the US and other government officials which has resulted in Huawei bans is largely a result of the impending 5G revolution set to kick off in the coming years.

With 5G beginning to ramp up, security should be a major concern for every country. However, there has been no concrete evidence of any malfeasance on Huawei’s part. Given the lack of evidence, why is Huawei coming under fire from foreign governments regarding national security concerns? The panic largely stems from issues of trust and centralization, with fears that Huawei’s substantial 5G lead could make them too pervasive in critical 5G networks around the world.

Why are governments so worried about 5G?

5G will be one of the most impactful technologies in the coming decade. The importance of 5G dwarfs that of previous generation networks (4G/3G etc.), with effects going far beyond added convenience from faster download speeds. 5G networks will facilitate the IoT revolution, connecting exponentially more devices in faster and more reliable ways, and allowing for substantial increases in automation and efficiency. These networks will also host numerous mission-critical functions, including driverless cars, energy grids, smart-cities and some military applications.

In terms of current 5G technology, it is no secret that Huawei is miles ahead of its competitors.  Before the US’ campaign against Huawei, the telecom giant was well positioned as the primary provider of core infrastructure components for most 5G networks around the world. This 5G dominance is in part what has caused some governments to recoil.

With 5G networks set to become vital components of almost every country’s critical infrastructure, some governments have begun to fear the possibility of a single telecom company having so much influence. In particular, some US officials have suggested that even just the possibility of Huawei installing backdoors into their 5G telecom equipment is too great a risk considering the possible consequences.

These claims have so far been conjecture, as no such backdoors have been discovered. However, the US argues that even if there are no backdoors now, future software patches could turn once harmless equipment malicious. So, if Huawei has not done anything wrong, but are being punished on the basis of what they could do, what can be done? How can they convince governments that their equipment is safe, and that it will never be used for nefarious purposes? Or if they can’t convince them, how can they mitigate any negative consequences? In either case, the key to Huawei’s predicament is decentralization.

Using blockchain and open-source practices to remove trust issues

One of the main concerns put forth by US officials was the possibility that malicious software patches could be downloaded into Huawei core 5G infrastructure components. Since their 5G tech is mostly proprietary, updates, patches and bug fixes must be designed and distributed by Huawei. Not only is this overwhelming for a single company, but given the current climate, this poses an issue for those foreign governments that can at times be distrusting of Chinese companies.

This fear could be quashed if Huawei used a blockchain based decentralized software development and auditing framework. Such a system could increase transparency by allowing for continuous and open auditing. Verified source code could be logged on the blockchain, allowing anyone or any program to check if software has been tampered with before running. Essentially, the blockchain would act as an unbiased source of truth—which along with a means of decentralized storage and distribution—would increase confidence regarding the safety of new software patches.

While this may seem outlandish, Huawei has already taken significant strides in the blockchain space. Just last year, they released a Blockchain-as-a-Service platform based on the Hyperledger framework. Moreover, as a member of the Linux Foundation’s Hyperledger Blockchain Consortium, it is clear that Huawei is open to using blockchain technology.

Of course, for a decentralized software auditing system to function correctly, Huawei would need to open-source their code so that it is visible to everyone. Not only would this increase trust in their products, but it could also make them more refined and secure. Open-source projects have the advantage of many eyes, whether that be from individuals, universities, or companies using the products. This makes spotting vulnerabilities and bugs far more likely, and with an undertaking as massive as 5G, there are bound to be flaws.

The main benefit: a decentralized framework with potentially thousands of auditors verifying the integrity of the software would lessen the need to trust a single entity like Huawei. This would ultimately make Huawei’s 5G products more robust, and lessen the validity of national security concerns expressed by some governments.

How can Huawei deal with the loss of Android Licensing?

Huawei is being attacked on multiple fronts. Besides 5G hardware, one of their most pressing issues comes from Google’s recent announcement that they would be revoking Huawei’s Android license, which would apply to all new Huawei phones. This move could have dire consequences for Huawei’s future smartphone sales outside of China. While Huawei has been developing their own backup OS which will likely be able to run Android apps, the phones will no longer come pre-installed with Google’s Mobile Services (think Gmail, Google Maps, YouTube etc.). Crucially, this includes the Google Play app store, which provides access to a host of third-party applications. Without Google’s Mobile Services, those in foreign markets such as Europe will be hesitant to buy Huawei phones that do not include their favourite apps.

Some have argued that Huawei could just build their own app store. However, this is not really a solution, as the licensing would still prevent them from including the most important apps. So is Huawei’s foreign smartphone market dead in the water? Thankfully no, and a potential fix to this situation is again decentralization.

The core Google app suite could still be acquired on Huawei phones by manually downloading the APK files, as could most other Android apps. The issue is that it is too much work for most users, and it can be potentially dangerous downloading files in this manner. A decentralized app store powered by blockchain technology could provide the same convenience of the Google Play store, but without the licensing issues.

In lieu of a centralized entity would be an autonomous running blockchain and token economy. Without a centralized controlling entity, this decentralized app store couldn’t be shut down, and there would be no one to prosecute for violating a licensing agreement. This could potentially save Huawei’s smartphone sales in foreign markets. Furthermore, Google would likely relish in such a scenario, as the restriction—which they were obligated to enact—could otherwise lose them a great deal of users and revenue.

Bigger Picture

The whole situation with Huawei has brought to light a broader issue. The more important technology is, the more of a concern centralization becomes. With critical technology being exchanged between countries that have strained political relations, the need for decentralization and transparency is becoming greater.

This is especially true for communications networks, which are becoming increasingly vital to every country’s infrastructure, and effectively acting as basic public utilities. In the future, it is likely that actual utilities such as energy, water and even cities will rely on 5G networks.

For technologies such as 5G where the stakes are incredibly high, we can leverage decentralized technologies such as blockchain to ensure that no single entity has too much control, while still allowing companies like Huawei to innovate and benefit. When the public good is on the line, decentralization and transparency is a must. If the control and responsibility of a technology can be spread among many, it will not only become more secure, but also quell the fears of distrusting governments. It is not just Huawei, but every telecom firm that should consider this.

Guest Author: Steve Wei

Steve Wei, founder & CEO of TOP Network, a blockchain company providing cloud communication services. Steve Wei is a successful serial entrepreneur. A founding employee at WebEx, Steve held multiple key positions at WebEx from 1996 to 2003. In 2004, he founded Cenwave Communications, a video conferencing software company successfully sold to Huawei in 2010. 

In 2012, Steve founded Dingtone, which operates communication apps including Dingtone, CoverMe and SkyVPN that altogether have attracted over 60 million users and will soon migrate to TOP Network. Steve earned his bachelor’s degree at Tsinghua University.

Steve will be speaking at the Blockchain Summit at MWC Shanghai on June 26, an event focuses on Intelligent Connectivity surrounding 5G, IoT, and other telecom applications.

Wire19 is the official media partner of MWC Shanghai 2019.

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed by the guest writer and those providing comments are theirs alone, and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of Wire19 or any employee thereof. Wire19 is not responsible for the accuracy of any of the information supplied by the Guest writers. This work is their opinion. It is not the intention of Wire19 to “malign any religion, ethnic group, club, organization, company, or individual.”

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