A small 5G technical trial on Auckland's waterfront ordinarily only interest to geeks has taken on huge political significance - in New Zealand and worldwide.

Chinese company Huawei has been under fire in the US and Australia, where security agencies have recommended its gear not be used by phone companies as they upgrade their networks from 4G to faster 5G technology.

Governing-party politicians in both countries have enthusiastically embraced a Huawei ban, accusing the privately-held company of being a spy - or potential spy - for the Chinese government.

Here, we've been in the opposite position. Former Prime Minister John Key actively promoted Huawei as a cost-competitive solution for New Zealand telcos after he returned from Shanghai World Expo in 2010. Huawei kit was due used in the Ultra Fast Broadband (UFB) and Rural Broadband (RBI) rollouts that followed.


Now, Spark and 2degrees are pushing our government to confirm Huawei as an option as they assess suppliers for their 5G mobile upgrades. But GCSB Minister Andrew Little and Communications Minister Kris Faafoi - who have yet to decide either way - face escalating pressure from across the Tasman to block the Chinese contender.

On November 3, Huawei NZ deputy chief executive Andrew Bowater made life a little easier for Little and Faafoi. Bowater told the Herald that Huawei would not pitch for Spark, Vodafone or 2degrees "core" 5G business - the core being the brains of a mobile network.

Instead, the Chinese company would confine itself to the Radio Area Network or RAN elements - essentially, gear on cell site towers on the edges of the network.

This wasn't enough for some of Huawei's critics, however, who said it was not possible for a network's core and RAN to be discreetly controlled by different vendors.

On Monday, Spark opened its 5G Lab at the GridAKL building at Wynyard Quarter on Auckland's waterfront.

It includes a tiny, showcase 5G network with four 5G cell sites supplied by Huawei and a core supplied by US company Cisco.

For most media, it was a chance for a photo op with Team NZ, which has Spark in its technology mix as it prepares for the 2021 America's Cup.

For Huawei, it represents "world-first with the switching-on of a live multi-vendor 5G trial network built to the full 3GPP Release 15 global industry standard" (it was followed soon after by a UK effort involving Huawei and network operator "3").


The live multi-vendor 5G trial network demonstrates the technical implementation of access and core separation, where the Huawei 5G NR (New Radio on both the C-band and mmWave) and 4G Radio Access Network are deployed using dedicated hardware connected to the Cisco EPC (Evolved Packet Core) with each component fully isolated, Bowater says.

"When everything was playing out in Australia, it was only theoretical. We've brought it to life. It's living and breathing on the waterfront," he says.

"We've emphatically proved our critics wrong."

Bowater's argument is bolstered by the fact that 3GPP is pan-industry global standards group. Its members include, among many others, Huawei's arch rivals in mobile network infrastructure: Nokia, Ericsson and Alcatel-Lucent.

That helps clear the way - politicians and GCSB willing - for Huawai to bid for the RAN element of Spark, Vodafone and 2degrees' respective 5G upgrades.

Debate over Huawei's alleged threat to national security is given extra frisson by New Zealand's membership of the "Five Eyes" alliance, along with the US, Canada, the UK and Australia.

Bowater argues that Huawei is under unprecedented scrutiny.

He notes that under the Telecommunications (Interception Capability and Security) Act (2013), the GCSB has to approve technology used by network operators for telecommunications network upgrades. Huawei faced similar scrutiny by the GCHQ in the UK, which shared results with New Zealand. It has passed.

The UK and Canada will be closely watching Spark's 5G trial in Auckland, Bowater says.

There are constant rumours, but the Huawei NZ deputy chief executive says there has never been any evidence tying Huawei to espionage.

His company has the backing of Spark managing director Simon Moutter, who told shareholders that Huawei's critics need to put up or shut up. Huawei should be in the mix of potential partners unless the government can provide "incontrovertible evidence" of illicit activity, he said.

2degrees director of corporate affairs and wholesale Mat Bolland struck a similar note. His company has worked with Huawei for 10 years, Boland says. They've provided quality gear at a good price. No one has produced any evidence of wrongdoing amid all the innuendo.

Boland says there are also fewer telco gear makers than there used to be. "It's not like we'd be losing out of 10" if Huawei was banned, he says. "There's only a handful left."

Costs would rise if Huawei was taken out of the 5G mix, Bolland said.

(Vodafone declined to comment on Huawei specifically, offering only the statement that "We follow the legal obligations in each country we operate in.")

Spark MD Simon Moutter - pictured at the opening of his company's 5G Lab - says unless the Crown can produce
Spark MD Simon Moutter - pictured at the opening of his company's 5G Lab - says unless the Crown can produce "incontrovertible evidence" of a threat, Huawei should be allowed to bid for 5G business.

Telecommunications Users Association head Craig Young says the increase in infrastructure costs would ultimately be passed on to consumers.

It's also worth noting that a 5G ban would imply that Huawei gear should also be removed from Spark, Vodafone and 2degrees networks, plus various parts of public-private fibre rollouts.

"It would be a huge disruption to the UFB project, as well as a significant cost, Young says.

"I can't see why we would follow Aussie on any technology decisions," he adds.

And while Huawei stridently refutes all espionage allegations as motivated by politics or protectionism, Bowater's counterpart across the Tasman has also pointed out, for those who do buy into the accusations, that Nokia and Ericsson have joint enterprises with local manufacturers in China.

The door is open for security agencies to inspect Huawei's gear any time they like, deputy chief executive says.

If Huawei's track record is so clean, and Bowater so confident its products can stand ongoing GCSB scrutiny, then why not bid for core 5G business?

Why is Huawei volunteering restricting itself to the RAN?

"We understand there are sensitivities," Bowater says.

He adds that on a more practical level, "We don't think it's worth our while for the amount of extra costs and testing that would be involved. It wouldn't be profitable for us."