Thailand’s political immaturity means its 5G network could be compromised without debate

On Sunday, Thailand’s National Broadcasting and Telecommunications Commission will auction off the country’s 5G spectrum to local telecommunication companies. AIS, DTAC, True, and CAT will all be making bids.

But, while the auction process will be relatively straightforward and transparent, the building of the 5G infrastructure will be conducted by state agencies with the support of internationally recognised companies including Huawei.

Much of the 5G equipment used by the private companies for consumer purposes will also be licensed from or directly produced by Huawei.

Yet while the world is deliberating the merits of Huawei’s involvement with their respective 5G sectors, Thailand seems set to embrace the controversial firm without debate or deliberation.

5G is a game changer

Contrary to conventional wisdom, 5G is not just about fast download speeds and helping the “streaming” ecosystem. Yes, while 5G will allow for faster download speeds, the most important thing about this technological evolution is improvements in consistency and reliability.

Gamers and content creators know that to ensure the best performance when pursuing their hobbies, ethernet cables and fixed wires are much more reliable than a WiFi network. 5G will change that completely.

No doubt we have all been to concerts, sporting events, or even political rallies. Wherever a large crowd gathers on current technology, the mobile signal drops and internet connection becomes unreliable or fails altogether.

5G will change this completely. The technology behind 5G will ensure that your WiFi or mobile connection is as reliable as an ethernet connection.

With the ‘internet of things’ coming to fruition, 5G chips are not limited to mobile devices either. Computers and laptops can have 5G chips that would allow the device to forego traditional storage for cloud storage. 5G chips mean streaming games, large files, and workspaces will become a thing of the present and not the future.

5G chips in cars will allow the monitoring of traffic and accidents and is a pre-cursor to a self-driving future. 5G chips in machinery mean a completely connected factory work-floor, allowing automation like never before.

Perhaps more worrying than ‘internet of things’ applications, 5G chips in government infrastructure means that a hack or a leak could have far-reaching national security implications.

Traffic data, population data, or even power grid control and sensitive defence data could be breached, utilised, and studied by foreign powers with access to a country’s 5G network.

Understanding Huawei

Huawei has, of course, denied that they have built any such ‘backdoor’ into their equipment. Yet, in both the United States and the European Union, Huawei technologies have been scrutinised endlessly. Some have gone so far as to suggest that Huawei has soldered onto their equipment pathways for the Chinese government to spy, infiltrate, or gather data.

The United States on Wednesday accused Huawei of spying on people using their equipment by using technologies utilised by law enforcement. According to a report by the Wall Street Journal, the US says that Huawei have had and have been using this technology for a decade.

“Huawei does not disclose this covert access to its local customers, or the host nation national-security agencies,” a senior US official told the Wall Street Journal.

Huawei denies the allegation saying that they are “only an equipment supplier.”

“We do not have the ability to bypass carriers, access control, and take data from their networks without being detected by all normal firewalls or security systems. In fact, even The Wall Street Journal admits that US officials are unable to provide any concrete details concerning these so-called ‘backdoors’,” said a Huawei statement on the issue.

In our region of the world, the Philippines has recently had to assure the public that Huawei’s access to its 5G network doesn’t jeopardise sovereignty. In a statement made in November to the public, the National Grid Corporation of the Philippines said that any allegations that China has remote access to, and could shut down the grid were ‘unfounded.’

However, according to a report by CNN, China’s State Grid Corporation, which helped the Philippines build its new smart grid, were switching all of the Philippines’ power technology to Huawei products. Even more worrying was the fact that Filipino engineers were not being trained to access and monitor the new products.

The revelations by CNN prompted a national debate in the Philippines. Already at loggerheads with Beijing over disputed territory in the South China Sea, Congress debated for several weeks the wisdom and practicality of turning over the country’s 5G network to China and Huawei.

No debate in Thailand

Yet no such national conversation has happened in Thailand. So dependent is the country on Chinese tourism and investment that Huawei’s involvement in the 5G sector has been embraced with open arms.

Deputy Prime Minister Somkid Jatusripitak said that with 5G technology, Thailand’s economy would expand at a faster pace while ‘private investment’ on the technology could exceed 110 billion baht in 2020.

Somkid focused on the Thai side of the debate by saying that the technology would only help entrepreneurs and expand the market.

“The society and economy will get more benefits from 5G beyond the money that would flow in,” he told reporters in January.

Not once was the fact that Huawei was actively investing in, and involved in the 5G infrastructure of Thailand mentioned.

According to James Wu, the President of Huawei Southeast Asia, the company had invested 160 million baht to test 5G systems and deploy their equipment in the country.

Abel Deng, Chief Executive Officer at Huawei Technologies Thailand, said the company would be looking to support eco-friendly investment and supports 5G related laws that would ‘benefit the public sector in Thailand.’

But in parliament, 5G related laws have not been debated, so focused have both sides been on other issues. An upcoming censure debate by the opposition mentions the economy, the coronavirus outbreak, but not one press briefing from opposition parties mentions the capitulation of 5G networks to foreign interests.

Sunday’s 5G spectrum auction is a done deal. It will bring billions of baht into the country’s coffers. But it will be built on technology and infrastructure that could cost the country more dearly than any potential income.

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