Despite warnings from the U.S., Chinese telecom companies are continuing to find contracts across the globe with developing nations seeking to develop the 5G infrastructure necessary to catapult them into the future. While the U.S., in an effort to address its concerns with rising Chinese dominance of 5G infrastructure, has successfully encouraged many of its allies to adopt its “Clean Network” vision in Europe and Asia, it has been less than successful with its neighbors. Instead of listening to the U.S.’ warnings, Mexico has chosen to involve the Chinese telecom Huawei in the construction of its 5G network.
Mexico’s Red Compartida and Huawei’s 5G Involvement
In 2013 the Mexican government began an initiative known as the “Red Compartida” to increase network connectivity across Mexico by creating a shared network. In 2017, the telecom company Altán Redes was chosen to further this network, aiming to bring coverage to 70% of Mexico by 2022 . Up to this point, this has largely been funded by local Mexican banks and Altán’s partners Nokia and Huawei.
However, as Altán increases the availability of 4G and 4.5G in Mexico, the telecom provider has begun to look forward toward the network’s transition to 5G. Along with this transition comes the risk that the U.S.’ firm stance on Huawei involvement in western networks could be compromised. Consequently, Altán announced that “…the system’s “core” and sites near the U.S. border – would go to Nokia, and awarded Huawei southern and central Mexico.” In doing so, the Mexican government will hopefully be able to continue to use Huawei’s technology without angering the U.S. by keeping the heart of its network clean for the purposes of the U.S.. Nevertheless it may not be so simple to appease the U.S.’ concerns as 5G may make it more difficult to separate the core of the network from Huawei’s technology according to some experts.
Security Concerns and the Importance of a “Clean Network”
With Mexico embracing Huawei technology at least in part south of the American border, some are likely to ask “why does America’s “Clean Network” matter?” The answer is that as global society becomes increasingly digital, more and more private and national data will be transferred via digital networks. While western companies and governments conceive of the internet as a place where information should be exchanged largely without surveillance and telecom companies as free actors, China, and by extension Chinese telecoms like Huawei, do not. For example, Article 7 of the National Intelligence Law in China states that “Any organization or citizen shall support, assist and cooperate with the state intelligence work in accordance with the law, and keep the secrets of the national intelligence work known to the public.” This law means that the Chinese government can require a company like Huawei to hand over any access they might have to technology used in a nation’s 5G network, allowing possible intelligence gathering or even the theft of intellectual property. This would not only extend to Mexican data but also any information that the U.S. or other countries sent along Mexican networks. This is best conceptualized as sending a letter through the postal system. To get the letter to its destination you hand it to a courier who then delivers it. You can seal the letter or even put it inside a safe but you still have to trust the courier to not attempt to open it while they are delivering it. Similarly sending any data over the internet requires you to convey it over someone else’s computer which requires implicit trust in the network. This is why the U.S. has become so committed to a “Clean Network,” to ensure that intelligence and trade secrets shared with its allies only go to their intended recipients.
Mexico has chosen to use Huawei’s technology in its network regardless of U.S. concerns. However, they are very aware of America’s concerns and are attempting to compromise with them by using Nokia in its core and Huawei in areas that are not near the U.S.. Whether this compromise will be sufficient to appease U.S. concerns about Huawei’s network enabling data harvesting so close to the American homeland however, remains unclear. Ultimately, it will still be for the U.S. to decide whether Mexico’s network is clean enough or if the presence of Huawei’s technology so near its border will necessitate additional security measures.