ALEX BRUMMER: Don’t assume Huawei is the solution to UK’s connectivity

ALEX BRUMMER: Fast broadband rules… but don’t assume Huawei is the solution to Britain’s connectivity needs

Among the most important pre-requisites of working from home is reliable, fast broadband. 

My son, an animator and video editor for a financial multinational, found his ability to work at speed changed dramatically recently when he was supplied with an ultra-fast broadband router at the behest of his employer.

The lockdown has underlined the value of connectivity. This week, for instance, the International Monetary Fund and World Bank hold their first ever virtual Spring meetings. 

Broadband boost: The lockdown has underlined the value of connectivity as Britain turns to working from home

Arguably, with global output in free fall, the worst recession since the Great Depression on the cards and a desperate need to get assistance to the poorest countries, the gatherings will be the most significant ever held.

But they can only achieve the bold goals being set if the technology works. It has been unhelpful that when the world needs the best connectivity, 5G – next generation mobile networks – are being demonised.

The threat is on two fronts. At the surreal level, 5G networks have become a target of conspiracy theorists such as David Icke who fear the networks could be a device for controlling our lives and might be responsible for the rapid spread of Covid-19.

Some serious people take this stuff literally. A friend who is an experienced health professional is convinced we have been rendered vulnerable to the virus by radioactive waves.

 BT boss Philip Jansen attacked the ‘mindless’ vandals who have verbally or physically assaulted 39 BT engineers involved in erecting 5G masts and vandalised 40 of the new pieces of equipment.

The second threat to 5G is rooted in realpolitik and technology theory. The Chinese firm Huawei, which claims not to be in thrall to the state, is at the forefront of rolling out 5G. Britain’s telecoms providers lobbied for it on price and speed of roll-out.

Many doubt the wisdom of giving Chinese entities access to infrastructure which could be used for spying. The pandemic has given new velocity to the case.

Politicians on the Right have talked about a ‘reckoning’ for Beijing for its role in the epidemic. 

A more cogent criticism is the way Chinese authorities used mobile telephones to monitor citizens in the Wuhan lockdown and to control all activity, down to what citizens accessed at stores.

The idea that Huawei is the only realistic choice is questionable. Nokia and Ericsson are thought to have the capability but could be slower and more expensive. But there is another technological aspect to this.

Huawei represents the traditional way, using dedicated masts and systems dominated by existing cell phone providers such as O2, Vodafone and BT’s EE. There is an alternative favoured by the Japanese tech-provider Rakuten and in Silicon Valley.

This group advocates ‘fully virtualised mobile networks’ using economical hardware and controlled by software similar to that used in cloud computing. Rakuten already has a 5G network up and running.

Some tech analysts argue that its kit could be as revolutionary as the adoption of cloud computing by pioneers Salesforce and Amazon. There might also be the advantage of keeping the Chinese at bay.

Even the silver generation, who find technology a mystery, have adapted to all manner of connections during the lockdown. What is lacking are stable and fast systems, whether using wi-fi or mobile.

We should not assume that China’s Huawei 5G offers the right answer to improved connectivity.