Is Spark thumbing its nose at NZ's top security agency, the GCSB, by using Huawei 5G technology in the trial of a private network to feed back data on how Emirates Team NZ's new boat is performing out on the Waitematā Harbour?
No, the company says emphatically.
It says the private network — which uses two cell towers at Milford and Takapuna to feed back real-time data to Emirates Team NZ — is separate from its public network with its millions of customers.
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But the mere fact that Spark did not have to apply to the Government Communications Security Bureau (GCSB) to use Huawei 5G for this private trial — simply informing the security agency that it was going to do so — suggests some of the more pointed hysteria over the Chinese company has diminished.
It also suggests there may be some sort of future for Huawei in New Zealand, contributing in part to the development not just of 5G, but also other iterations (6G, 7G, 8G) which are already being projected in more advanced-technology economies.
Here's another hint: the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment (MBIE) has handily "lent" Spark some spectrum for the trial.
It would take someone slightly more cynical than me to suggest that there is a "national interest" aspect to this. But I will make the point anyway.
The Government has, after all, invested $136.5 million so the America's Cup regatta can be held in Auckland. Nailing a win in 2021 will ensure repeat business and a better return on the public's investment.
Spark had already been developing this technology in conjunction with Huawei to use for the America's Cup before the GCSB dampened its ardour. The technology is being trialled but it is yet to be confirmed what role Huawei will have when the racing proper gets under way.
From the China side — via financial magazines such as Caixin — the trial is being read as "calling into question the extent to which the Chinese tech giant is blocked from supplying the country's next-generation mobile networks".
The truth is not so black and white, of course.
There are three factors colouring the rollout of 5G technology in New Zealand and Spark's ultimate technology partners.
First, the availability of suitable spectrum.
Former Communications Minister Clare Curran had tipped a spectrum auction in 2019. But the New Zealand Māori Council — which is now under energetic leadership — urged a slower response.
The council has argued that iwi missed out on a special allocation in the 4G auction in 2013. This time round it wants more than the $30m development fund it got as a result of 4G to help Māori benefit from new technology.
Politics comes into play. Current Communications Minister Kris Faafoi — whose party, Labour, has seven Māori seats it wants to retain — has slowed the process down. Faafoi has indicated that he wants a framework for iwi radio spectrum allocations that will endure beyond the current discussions over 5G technology.
What was 2019 has now become (maybe) late 2021 for the first auction of 3.5 gigahertz band spectrum, with the national rights taking effect in late 2022 at the earliest.
This is a fundamental absurdity.
While advanced nations like South Korea are actively rolling out 5G technology to enable their companies to maintain international competitiveness, this Government stays hostage to iwi. Instead of simply doing a valuation and writing a cheque — and getting on with business — it is setting itself and the taxpayer up for another asset play.
Second, Spark has also leveraged the slowdown in the spectrum allocation process.
More than a year has passed since the GCSB rejected a Spark proposal to use Huawei technology in its upgrade to a 5G network. The GCSB took the view that adopting the technology could present a security risk.
But Spark has yet to go back to the GCSB with a new 5G network proposal, or take soundings on just what could be done to mitigate the security risk.
Spark has put an RFP (request for proposal) out to telco technology service providers to provide gear for its 5G network. Among those responding to the RFP are understood to be longtime Huawei competitor Ericsson (Swedish), Cisco (US-owned) and Nokia (Finland).
South Korea's giant Samsung has also been suggested.
Spark makes clear that Huawei will not be involved in the "core" of the network and that it is likely now to follow a mode adopted by the UK to have multiple vendors involved in the 5G rollouts.
The third factor is time.
A UK parliamentary committee rejected a proposed ban on British telecom carriers using Huawei gear. "There are no technical grounds for excluding Huawei entirely from the UK's 5G or other telecommunications networks," wrote MP Norman Lamb, chair of the science and technology committee, in a letter explaining the committee's conclusions. The EU has also rejected an outright ban.
There will come a point, however, where New Zealand will also need to make calls on the spectrum and whether it — like the UK — allows a limited role for Huawei.
Delays are useful to a point.
Meantime we lumber on with technology that is fast becoming second world.