Australian Parliament Hatches Nostalgic 5G Plan

Kieran Adair

May 15, 2020

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Talk about a slow connection. It looks like our 5G future is joining the NBN slow train to nowhere.

Nearly two years since the Turnbull Government threw the 5G roll-out into disarray by blocking Huawei, the government is still grappling with how the technology is going to be deployed.  That puts us about four years behind the rest of the world. It looks like our 5G future is joining the NBN slow train to nowhere.

Remarkably, this week a parliamentary committee of inquiry into the “deployment, adoption and application” of the technology suggested Australia could start making its own 5G equipment. That would be a great idea if government policy over the last 20 years hadn’t been committed to frying Australia’s manufacturing and tech capacity to a crisp. The wreckage of our industrial base, at the hands of Liberal and Labor governments, would be hard pressed to produce black and white TVs.

We are so far behind the rest of the world, the idea of reactivating a technological manufacturing base hardly inspires confidence for our 5G future.

Australia’s NBN was already groaning under the load imposed upon it. Its inadequacies have been further exposed during this COVID crisis as many of us work and study at home. Excruciating slow speeds, buffering and spinning wheels on our screens are part of our lives again. 5G once offered the ability to leapfrog over the NBN white elephant. But no more it seems.

Australia only has five eyes when it comes to 5G

With little fanfare, a House of Representatives committee inquiry into the roll-out of Australia’s 5G network tabled several recommendations this week which included the Federal Government encouraging “the manufacture of 5G infrastructure within Australia”.

And if it cannot be solely made in Australia, the committee came up with the equally nostalgic suggestion that we could form manufacturing partnerships with the rest of the Anglosphere and our Five Eyes Alliance partners – Canada, New Zealand, United Kingdom and the United States. There was no mention of partnering with any Asian nation with strong high-tech manufacturing bases – Japan, South Korea and Taiwan. Perhaps someone should advise the committee that not all Asians belong to the dreaded Chinese Communist Party.

Sir Robert Menzies would be proud of this plan for Australia to relive the glory days of wireless technology when the AWA Building transmitter towered over Sydney’s skyline during his reign.

But it is doubtful this quixotic plan will deliver Australia a working 5G network for this generation.

Whatever the musings of the committee the equipment for our 5G network will still come from China despite the Huawei ban and the possible windfall for some Nordic companies.

Rather than making its own 5G mobile equipment in their Scandinavian homelands, the two major suppliers of equipment for Australia’s 5G network, Nokia and Ericsson, both have significant manufacturing operations in China.

Ironically, unlike the privately owned Huawei, the Swedish and Finnish telecommunications companies have joint ventures with Chinese manufacturers that are part or fully-owned by the Chinese State.

Scandinavian in name but Chinese by manufacture

Despite Ericsson having its largest global manufacturing plant in Nanjing China, in co-ownership with a Chinese Government part-owned entity, the company struggled to answer some basic questions about its joint ventures at the hearings held by the parliamentary inquiry.

Ericsson’s head of government relations in Australia Michelle Phillips had to take on notice a question about Ericsson’s joint ventures in China. Also taken on notice was the question on whether any of the equipment Ericsson was supplying its Australian 5G customers – which include Telstra and Optus – was sourced from its Chinese joint venture.

When it provided its responses to the committee two weeks later, Ericsson confirmed its joint venture in China was with Nanjing Ericsson Panda Communication Co. Ltd. and that “some products” used by its Australian customers were indeed made in China.

There was no mention that the joint venture includes the State-owned Assets Supervision and Administration Committee (SASAC) as a shareholder. For those unfamiliar with the SASAC, its mission statement notes: “The Party Committee of SASAC performs the responsibilities mandated by the Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party.”

On the question whether its 5G equipment from China was secure, Ericsson also said: “5G is the most secure communication technology to date – further improving the security and privacy capabilities of 4G.” It added: “In terms of hardware, Ericsson undertakes audits of all our factories on a regular basis, where the site’s security is assessed, and risks reviewed and acted upon.”

It was not required by the parliamentary committee to provide any further reassurances or proof its equipment was safe.

Shanghai Bell rings no bells

Nokia appeared equally unprepared for similar questions when it fronted the parliamentary committee hearing. Its chief technology officer for Oceania Adam Bryant had to take on notice the question on whether Nokia equipment being supplied in Australia was Chinese made.

“Nokia has a global manufacturing supply chain and leverages that as appropriate to each customer and market condition,” was Nokia’s written response.

Nokia also had to take on notice a question on whether its Chinese joint venture, Nokia Shanghai Bell, was under any “other administrative or regulatory conditions of manufacture that would be different in Nokia’s normal business practice”.

In its written response, Nokia said: “As you would expect, Nokia has strong, robust and standardised processes which apply in every country we operate within.” Phew. That’s all it had to say to appease the parliamentary committee about any potential risks posed by making its equipment in a joint venture co-owned by the Chinese State (which was never mentioned by name).

Nokia was not required to elaborate that the co-owner of Nokia Shanghai Bell in China also happens to be the State-owned Assets Supervision and Administration Commission of the State Council.

Well I guess Ericsson and Nokia have a lot of blonde-haired people working for them and that should be good enough foundation for a security and communications policy.

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Written By Kieran Adair

Kieran Adair is a reporter for Xenophon Davis, covering government accountability, civil liberties, and whistleblower trials. He has previously written for the Michael West, Guardian Australia, and Sydney Criminal Lawyers. Twitter: @kieranadair_

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