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While global expectations are high on the potential for 5G technology to fast-track the development of cutting-edge sectors such as autonomous driving and artificial intelligence, a Hong Kong telecom executive has warned that superfast mobile networks could be more vulnerable to cyberattacks than their predecessors.

“The 5G systems are built around cloud-based technology and functions, so the cybersecurity threat is there. We have to protect our networks better than before,” KL Ho, senior vice-president of strategic wireless technology at Hong Kong Telecom (HKT), told TechNode on the sidelines of the electronicAsia trade fair in the special administrative region last month.

Cybersecurity obstacles

The debate over 5G and cybersecurity has become a global geopolitics issue, involving countries including the US, China, and EU members, as well as Chinese gear makers such as Huawei and ZTE.

The US, along with some of its closest allies such as Australia and Japan, has banned Huawei from participating in their 5G network rollouts. It is also actively lobbying other countries, especially EU nations, to exclude Huawei equipment from their 5G upgrades.

Though no EU nations have complied with the US’ call so far, the group published a report earlier this month warning that “hostile third countries” may force 5G suppliers to facilitate cyberattacks serving their own national interests. The reports’ findings echoed US government sentiment that Beijing could use a 2017 Chinese law to force Huawei to hand over network data to the government.

State-backed actors are perceived to pose the most serious threat, as they “can have the motivation, intent and most importantly the capability to conduct persistent and sophisticated attacks on the security of 5G networks,” according to the report.

Ho, however, believes that no “decent“ 5G equipment suppliers would assist their governments in conducting cyberattacks against other nations because such behavior would discredit them.

“The point is once they were found with solid evidence that they ever engaged in such conduct, they will fail in no time and nobody will trust them anymore,” said Ho.

HKT is undergoing a comprehensive tender process for vendors that intend to provide equipment for its 5G networks, Ho told TechNode, adding that the company’s principle of choosing 5G suppliers is “vendors with the best performance both technically and commercially.”

Regulatory challenges

HKT, the biggest wireless carrier in terms of subscribers in the special autonomous region, plans to launch 5G services in the city in the second quarter of 2020.

Ho confirmed that the release of 5G in Hong Kong had been delayed by six months to one year, compared with other economies.

In June 2018, HKT called on the local government to make “radical changes” to its spectrum policies and management to avoid “disastrous consequences” for the city’s role as a regional telecom hub.

The company secured the 4.9 GHz band spectrum for the provision of 5G last month from the city’s Office of the Communications Authority.

New opportunities

Ho believes that 5G will bring plenty of opportunities for startups to assist telecom operators in fields such as network construction and maintenance.

With the automation of 5G networks, he said, “we can not rely on engineers to manage the networks manually. We have to rely on some sort of artificial intelligence solutions.”

“Those are the areas where startups can bring in their expertise to help operators to build those solutions.”

With contributions from Coco Gao

Wei Sheng

Writing about semiconductors and telecommunications.

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Coco Gao

Coco Gao is TechNode's Beijing-based visual reporter. Passionate about producing multimedia content on Chinese tech and industry, she holds a Master degree in Journalism from the University of Hong Kong....

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