Huawei would be willing to have its staff banned from Spark's 5G mobile network, or have only a small number of GSCB-vetted engineers tend to it, if that's what it takes to regain the GCSB's favour, the company's NZ deputy chief executive Andrew Bowater tells the Herald.

Bowater also says that while a UK Government report released over the weekend makes for "uncomfortable reading," its findings centred on poorly-written software (or "a large amount of amateur-hour engineering flubs," as Herald contributor Juha Saarinen put it.)

You'll find "clunky code" somewhere in any company's product if you put it under that sort of microscopic security, he maintains.

The key thing was that the UK watchdog did not find any "backdoors" or other malicious spook code, he says.

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Bowater would like to see a public and collaborative process similar to the UK-based Huawei Cyber Security Evaluation Centre, which is chaired by the UK Government's National Cyber Security Centre's Ciaran Martin - and which produced the report that created so much buzz over the weekend.

It was embarrassing to get some of his company's dirty laundry aired in public, Bowater says, but his company is willing to undergo that degree of public scrutiny - and the issues identified by the Evaluation Centre are all engineering issues that can be addressed.

The Huawei man says he's still positive his company can participate in Spark's 5G upgrade - despite the telco's initial proposal being blocked by the GCSB on November 28 because of never-specified "national security risks".

Huawei NZ Deputy CEO Andrew Bowater. Photo / Supplied.
Huawei NZ Deputy CEO Andrew Bowater. Photo / Supplied.

On the face of things, the situation looks challenging for the Chinese telco giant, with little or no progress evident on the public front.

Like the PM, Justice Minister and all-comers, Bowater says the ball is in Spark's court. It's up to the telco to re-submit a new 5G mobile network upgrade proposal that mitigates the concerns raised by the GCSB - which, under the Telecommunications (Interception Capability and Security) Act 2013 or TICSA, must vet any telco network upgrade.

Yesterday, Spark spokesman Andrew Pirie said there had been "No substantive update" on his company's position from February 20, when he said, "We have been provided information by GCSB as part of our discussions with them on their decision. These discussions are ongoing and we have not yet made any decision on whether or when we should submit a revised proposal to GCSB. We're not in a position to share details of what information GCSB has provided to Spark, some of which is security classified.

There has been a bit of a change of tone from Spark, however. At the telco's AGM in November, MD Simon Moutter spoke passionately in support of Huawei. At its interim results briefing in February, he reassured analysts that Spark could meet its self-imposed deadline July 1, 2020 deadline for its first 5G service - and on budget - by pursuing a multi-vendor strategy. He noted his company also worked with Ericsson and Cisco. And at Spark's 5G self-driving vehicle demo last month, Huawei didn't even get a mention.

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern opens the new New Zealand embassy in Beijing on April during her 24 hour visit to China. Huawei NZ's Andrew Bowater sees the visit as broadly positive. Photo/Audrey Young
Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern opens the new New Zealand embassy in Beijing on April during her 24 hour visit to China. Huawei NZ's Andrew Bowater sees the visit as broadly positive. Photo/Audrey Young

Nevertheless, Bowater says things are happening. Although Spark is driving events - as per the way TICSA vetting is setup - Huawei and Spark are in regular contact.

And although Moutter is keen as mustard to have Spark's first 5G coverage operational before the America's Cup, Bowater says there's still a good six year's heavy usage left in Spark's 4G network. The Huawei man sees 5G hitting its full potential in NZ between 2025 and 2030.

That leaves plenty of time to resolve GCSB issues between Huawei and Spark, and Huawei and 2degrees (2degrees has yet to put a 5G upgrade proposal to the GCSB but is an almost all-Huawei shop; Vodafone NZ uses mainly Nokia Networks gear).

But how to get back in?

Bowater has already said Huawei is willing to forgo bidding for the core (or "brains") of Spark's 5G mobile network, restricting itself to the RAN (radio access network or cell towers).

Spark and Huawei maintain there are no national security issues with Huawei product being used across the board, but Bowater says for the sake of political pragmatism, his company has voluntarily taken itself out of the running for the core.

This week, he raised the possibility to the Herald that Huawei could go even further, restricting itself to only part of the RAN (some critics have said the core and the RAN can never be truly separate; Huawei disagrees but, again, Bowater is being pragmatic).

And of course he's also thrown in that Huawei staff could be blocked from accessing the network, or only a small number of GCSB-vetted staff tend to it.

From this point, we'll have to see if Spark incorporates that idea into any revised 5G upgrade proposal, then how the GCSB reacts.

Now that it's subject to a royal commission of inquiry post-Christchurch, it's hard to see the spy agency introducing any radical changes in the short term, such as adopting the UK public evaluation model.

Still, if the UK Evaluation Centre ultimately gives Huawei the green light (it has another report due at the end of May), that could play a role in the GCSB's thinking.

A third solution

Of course, there's also the possibility that the GCSB's ban is largely politically driven, which means no amount of technical concessions will be good enough.
Here, the company's biggest hope comes from Donald Trump.

During February, the US President gave strong hints that his government could go easier on Huawei if the Chinese government made concessions in the ongoing trade war.

US spy agencies' concerns about Huawei predate Trump, and his comments stirred alarm in some quarters of the conservative press, with their implication that the Chinese telco giant is a pawn in a game of trade war chess rather than a genuine security threat.

Still, Trump is Trump, and he loves a deal. Despite the coincidental timing of various Five Eyes' countries moves against Huawei late last year, Jacinda Ardern and GSCB Minister Andrew Little have denied being subject to any external pressure. But, equally, if the US ultimately eases up on Huawei as part of a trade war compromise with China, it's easy to see it smoothing the way for the company here.