India is reluctant to allow Huawei Technologies to participate in the country's 5G rollout, despite the Chinese telecom giant's recent proposal to sign a pledge guaranteeing there will be "no back door" into its equipment that could threaten national security.
A back door is a means by which normal security can be bypassed in order to gain access to a network. They are often installed in hardware and software so programmers can troubleshoot problems, but can also be exploited by hackers.
The U.S. has blacklisted Huawei, claiming the company's telecom gear contains back doors that could allow the Chinese government to spy on users. Huawei denies the allegations.
The company said in June that it was willing to make a formal commitment to reassure the Indian government over espionage risks. Huawei India CEO Jay Chen told the English-language daily Economic Times, "We are proposing to the Indian government that we are ready to sign a no back door agreement. We encourage other original equipment manufacturers also to sign this kind of agreement with the government and telecom operators."
The Indian telecom market is one of the fastest-growing in the world, and is projected to expand 10.3% to $103.9 billion by 2020, according to a report by Market Research Store. Huawei will lag 5G rivals such as Finland's Nokia and Sweden's Ericsson unless New Delhi soon opens its doors.
The proposal followed a February statement with which Huawei tried to address security concerns. "We are ahead on 5G as compared to others. Cybersecurity and privacy protection are our top concern," the statement said, adding: "Security concerns are present irrespective of any technology, vendor, country of origin or individual in today's global supply chain, where every country, every organization and every individual will have to timely implement various countermeasures for keeping networks secure."
The pledge of no back doors has yet to convince the Indian government. "There are suspicions about the assurances given by Huawei," a source in the prime minister's office told the Nikkei Asian Review. "The no back door agreement they are proposing is very doubtful. The government is in no hurry to make a decision on Huawei's entry."
Earlier in June, Ravi Shankar Prasad, the newly appointed telecom minister, said the government was taking a serious look at Huawei's participation in 5G networks. A government committee has been set up to examine Huawei's network security, a source at the Department of Telecommunications told Nikkei Asian review. "The no back door pact would overcome some of the concerns, but not all," he told Nikkei Asian review, adding that "the department itself is split over Huawei's entry."
Experts say suspicion over Huawei's previous behavior has raised skepticism. "The damage done by Huawei in the past cannot just be healed by such promises," Vinal Wakhlu, former chairman and managing director of state-owned Telecommunications Consultants India told Nikkei. "These promises aren't convincing."
Huawei was accused of hacking Bharat Sanchar Nigam Ltd., India's state-owned telecom. The hacks were so prevalent that in 2009 the Ministry of Home Affairs unofficially told the telecom industry not to use equipment near border areas from the likes of Huawei, ZTE and other Chinese makers.
In 2014, Huawei was allegedly involved in hacking BSNL's network in the southern state of Andhra Pradesh. A government committee probed the matter but its findings were inconclusive.
Huawei refuted the allegations. "Huawei India denies such alleged hacking and continues to work closely with customers and government in India to address any network security issue with full compliance on network security norms, regulations and laws," said a company executive in an email response to local media in 2014.
And it is not just Huawei's alleged hacking that concerns officials. India is also unsure of its own risk management capabilities, experts argue.
The Indian Telegraph Act, amended in 2017, mandates the testing of all telecom equipment being sold in or imported to the country. Currently, 90% of India's telecom gear is imported. But according to Gl Jogi, a retired BSNL senior executive, a robust security mechanism has yet to be deployed.
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 address the problem.
Huawei has been barred from participating in certain 5G tenders in Australia, New Zealand and Japan, while many others are still undecided. Meanwhile, Russia and Saudi Arabia have given Huawei the greenlight to proceed with 5G.
During the G-20 summit in Japan, U.S. President Donald Trump announced that he would allow American companies to sell nonsensitive goods and technology to Huawei, stating that the move would barely affect national security.
"The Trump administration's recent decision on Huawei tells us about the softer stand the administration is taking," said a source at the Department of Telecommunications. "This also indicates that India would not be facing much U.S. pressure regarding its decision on 5G."
Huawei's strength is its price. An engineer at the department said Huawei is far cheaper than its counterparts. During a recent bid, the company was only asking one fourth that of its competitor, America's Qualcomm.
Many experts believe that due to its low price and already well-established presence in India, it may be difficult to completely ban Huawei from 5G.