India Developing 5G – A blow to China?

31-07-2020 | By Robin Mitchell

With governments around the world rejecting Chinese developed 5G solutions, there is a growing demand for countries to develop their solutions. Has India decided on whether to use Chinese 5G technology, what solutions are they developing, and when will a 5G network in India rollout? Find out about the forthcoming 5G network in India!

Chinese 5G Technology

5G technology is the next generation of cellular communications after 4G and promises to provide users with high download speeds, low-latency, and minimal effect from multiple simultaneous users. Developing 5G technology, however, is no small feat, and requires a wide range of advanced methods from directional signals to MIMO antennas. This matter is further complicated when the world as a whole tries to negotiate on exactly how 5G should work (hence the need for standards). When it comes to 5G technologies, it is hard to deny that China is at the forefront with their major telecoms company, Huawei, already installing and providing 5G services. This, coupled with their rising financial growth, makes Huawei an attractive choice when creating a country's mobile infrastructure.

However, the UK (as well as others, including the US and Japan), have blacklisted Chinese 5G providers meaning that their 5G infrastructure cannot be based on Chinese technology. One reason for this band is because China has a long history of industrial espionage, IP theft, copyright violation, and cybercriminal activities. Another factor that has governments worried about Chinese technology is that by law, Chinese companies can be arbitrarily taken over and controlled by the ruling communist regime. When these two facts are combined, it is not improbable that a small microchip, almost invisible to the naked eye, could be installed into critical 5G infrastructure which, when activated, could provide the Chinese government complete control over the network. 

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India vs China in Tech

The relationship between India and China is incredibly complicated for a multitude of reasons. On the one hand, the trade between the two nations provides massive amounts of economic activity. On the other hand, border disputes and an inherently different government structure hinder the ability for both nations to work together. When faced with the growing evidence of cybercrime, privacy invasion, and theft, India has begun to take action against Chinese technology products ranging, including many apps. Apps blacklisted by India include TikTok, WeChat, UC Browser, and Baidu Maps. However, just like the UK was pressured to ban Chinese 5G technology by the US, India is feeling growing pressure also to place a ban on Chinese hardware relating to infrastructure. Currently, the government is still deciding on whether to go ahead with a ban, but should it do so then cellular companies will need to find a supplier of 5G technology, and India just might hold the key to its future!

Introducing Reliance 5G Jio in India

Reliance Jio Infocomm Limited often referred to as 5G Jio in India, is an Indian telecoms provider that is looking to develop and install its 5G technology in India. Currently, the company provides 4G services and hardware in India, but the use of IP technology (i.e. reprogrammable FPGA and other digital processing systems), allows the company to upgrade large amounts of pre-existing hardware to make them 5G ready. Jio's ability to develop world-class 5G technology is further helped with its deep ties to Qualcomm who are investing $95 million for a 0.15% equity stake. While the government is still undecided on whether to ban Chinese 5G technology, the move for Jio to produce a home-grown solution falls in-line with India's current initiative to become self-reliant (Atmanirbhar Bharat / Self Reliant India). If Jio can produce its 5G, then the risk to the cellular infrastructure from foreign attacks is significantly reduced. However, this only remains true if the technology is developed and built inside of India. If physical equipment is sent to China to be constructed, then a small amount of reverse engineering and PCB tampering would allow a Chinese manufacturer to install small backdoor chips, potentially giving them remote access. 

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Why is 5G a particular risk?

Unlike 4G, 5G opens up countries to a whole new range of risk. Up till now, cellular communications have mostly been limited to phone calls, texting, and internet browsing. While cellular technologies are essential for making emergency calls, many emergency services use direct radio communication instead meaning that communication is still possible even when cellular services are unavailable. However, 5G will change the game in how cellular communications are used thanks to its ability to service many thousands of devices simultaneously, provide low latency, and deliver high download speeds. 

This, coupled with other technologies such as eSIM (electronic SIM cards), will open up 5G networks to IoT devices, self-driving vehicles, and even everyday devices. 5G will become more than just a cellular network for phones; it will become the first generic wireless internet system. While this provides many advantages (such as the removal of signal dead zones, roaming internet anywhere, and removal of potential security weak spots such as routers), it also opens up some significant issues. One primary risk is that having so many devices reliant on a single cellular network puts all of those devices at risk if the network can easily be compromised by a single entity (i.e. government). This is one of the reasons why some countries are blacklisting Chinese developed 5G technologies.

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Is rejecting China the right thing to do - 5G Network in India final thoughts

For years there have been attempts to move manufacturing away from countries like China into local communities. One argument in favour of this move is that developing products locally helps to strengthen a country's economy and security at the same time. It also prevents foreign manufacturers from having easy access to design files whereby IP rights can easily be breached, and clones mass-produced which hurts the profits from companies that invested in research and development to produce the original product. The other argument in favour of rejecting Chinese made goods is the humanitarian aspect; it is no secret that many workers are underpaid and overworked.

However, before rushing to conclusions, we should take a minute to step back and look at China with a global view. The first aspect of China that needs to be understood is the quality of life; low wages in China may still provide an adequate quality of life. Providing China with the ability to manufacture goods also helps to provide economic activity, which in turn provides the next generation higher standards of living. This can already be seen with China beginning to move towards service-based industries (most 1st world countries are heavily based in service industries such as finance). The second aspect that needs to be considered is that economic growth in China has helped to make the country more open. The fact that Chinese citizens are allowed to emigrate away from China, visit the world, and use the internet is a significant step towards creating a free society that is already a superpower.

If the world outright rejects Chinese activities globally, then the world risks turning China into an outsider. However, if significant infrastructure systems are based on technology that is known to provide China with easy access, then those systems are placed in considerable risk. If the infrastructure was for merely showing GIFs of cats on the internet, then the ability for a foreign government to take control of that infrastructure is irrelevant. But cellular networks such as 5G are going to provide more than just cellular communications including IoT, emergency comms, and traffic control means that a foreign government could do far worse than bring an entire country to a halt. 

So, should a designer reject Chinese developed solutions? This depends on the application in mind; if you are designing a single device whose data is benign in nature, then using Chinese tech could save money and development time. If, however, you are planning to bring thousands of devices to the market with the ability to hold private data or provide an essential service, then avoiding Chinese tech could be a good move. Just like India, it is never a bad thing to develop your solutions!

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By Robin Mitchell

Robin Mitchell is an electronic engineer who has been involved in electronics since the age of 13. After completing a BEng at the University of Warwick, Robin moved into the field of online content creation, developing articles, news pieces, and projects aimed at professionals and makers alike. Currently, Robin runs a small electronics business, MitchElectronics, which produces educational kits and resources.