Huawei NZ expressed fresh hopes for overcoming its GSCB ban after the UK Government recently gave it the green light for limited participation in that country's 5G mobile network upgrades.
But GCSB Director-General Andrew Hampton appears unmoved by the British decision.
Hampton has never previously given a reason for blocking Huawei from Spark's 5G upgrade, beyond the catch-all of undisclosed "national security concerns".
But his comments overnight reveal he has a beef with one of Huawei's key claims: that the core and edge of a 5G network can be quarantined from each other, in security terms - allowing the Chinese company to occupy the edge.
Speaking after an appearance before Parliament's security and intelligence committee yesterday evening, Hampton was asked to what degree New Zealand's 5G assessment process was "guided by the decisions of a like-minded nation".
"Well, we receive intelligence from our partners; we receive advice from our partners. Where the Brits ended up, for example, wasn't a big surprise to us," Hampton replied.
"The difference between us and them, though, is we have an established legal framework by which we work this through. There's not a requirement for New Zealand to come to a national position because we already have legislation that allows us to work through it on a case-by-case basis."
In the UK, Boris Johnson gave Huawei the go-ahead after the Prime Minister convened a National Security Council meeting.
Here, Justice Minister Andrew Little has repeatedly refused to weigh in, or meet with Huawei, saying it is up to the GCSB to assess telecommunications network upgrade proposals on a project-by-project basis. There was no ban, per se, on any company or country.
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Can Huawei be isolated on the edge?
A key facet of the UK decision was that Huawei will be allowed to supply gear for the "edge" of 5G networks (which includes radio gear cellphone towers), but not the "core" - or the brains of the network that controls traffic.
Huawei NZ - which was included in Spark's initial 5G upgrade proposal, and blocked by the GCSB in November 2018 - has already volunteered to restrict itself to the edge.
Its deputy CEO, Andrew Bowater, said earlier that tests at Spark's 5G lab on the Auckland waterfront - which it invited the GCSB to review - had proved the edge and core could be securely separated.
And he reiterated that point this morning, telling the Herald, "Globally, Huawei has proven that it is possible to separate the core and the RAN [radio access network or edge], and we've achieved this separation during tests in New Zealand," Bowater said.
But that argument appears to cut no ice with Hampton.
Asked last night if New Zealand could follow the UK solution of barring Huawei from the core but allowing it on the edge, the GCSB boss replied: "I think what everyone accepts is that with 5G, the distinction between the core, which is the sensitive parts of the network, and the edge, which are the non-sensitive parts, has become really blurry.
"Indeed, that's intentional: that's what 5G is: you distribute the important parts around the network so it works faster."
A case in point is Vodafone, which has pushed the concept of edge-computing under 5G, with intelligence through the 5G network helping to speed apps from remote surgery to real-time processing of suspicious images caught on high-definition security cameras.
"Can you isolate particular parts of the core parts and parts of the edge and say that they're not sensitive?" Hampton asked.
Answering his own question, he said, "Well, that's really a technical issue. It's for New Zealand's network operators to come to us with a proposal saying 'we think we've found a way to manage those risks' and then we will look at it on its merits."
Bowater responded after the Herald relayed the GCSB bosses comments: "We are now seeing operators around the world deploying 5G with different vendors for the core and RAN networks, which we would say actually helps deliver a more secure network.
"It isn't blurry, the separation is clear and international experts agree with us, and the decisions we've had in the UK and EU are yet further testament to how we can achieve this separation."
Has Spark resubmitted?
Asked if Spark had resubmitted a 5G upgrade plan to the GCSB that included Huawei gear, Hampton said: "We don't comment on the notifications we receive. Partly for national security reasons. But, just as importantly, and probably more importantly, it's for reasons of commercial confidentiality. The only reason that we ended up talking publicly about Spark's earlier notification, which they've subsequently withdrawn, is because they put it into the public arena."
But while Hampton was not willing to comment, a Spark spokeswoman told the Herald on January 29 that the telco had yet to resubmit a 5G plan that included Huawei kit.
Spark did submit a plan that included Nokia Networks gear for the edge of its 5G network and kit from American company Cisco and Sweden's Ericsson for its core.
It was also still possible that Spark would resubmit to use Huawei gear for its edge. But it was also possible the telco would turn to a newcomer to its preferred-supplier list, Korean giant Samsung, which was officially added to its roster last November.
Meanwhile, Huawei's fortunes continue to buffet around the international stage this week.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel has backed a strategy paper that would curtail Huawei's involvement in 5G upgrades but stopped short of an outright ban. At this point, pundits are split between whether the Germans are giving Huawei the cold shoulder or a foot in the door. The truth is that it's a work in progress. Various parties in the coalition government are still hammering out the details of the policy, according to an FT report.
In the US, a Wall Street Journal report claimed Huawei maintains secret back-door access to telecom networks around the world through channels designed for law enforcement.
"We have evidence that Huawei has the capability secretly to access sensitive and personal information in systems it maintains and sells around the world," national security adviser Robert O'Brien told the paper.
"Huawei does not disclose this covert access to its local customers, or the host nation national-security agencies," another un-named senior US official said.
A spokesman for Huawei dismissed the claims.
In the UK, Vodafone Group chief executive Nick Read said his company had decided to rip Huawei gear from the core of its networks in Europe, following the UK Government's decision to restrict the Chinese giant to the edge.
Read said the process would take five years and cost around €200 million (NZ$843m).
Levels of exposure
In NZ, 2degrees is the telco with the most exposure to sensitivity about Huawei gear being used at the core of a network.
2degrees is a nearly all-Huawei shop, using the Chinese company's gear for both its core and its edge.
Spark has Huawei gear for its 4G edge (and Nokia Networks for its early 5G edge) and Cisco and Ericsson in its core.
Vodafone NZ uses Nokia Networks as its primary technology partner across its 4G and 5G networks.
Earlier, 2degrees chief executive Mark Aue told the Herald he was confident that security concerns about Huawei would ultimately be resolved. Aue saw no immediate consumer need or business case for 5G.