Alternative 5G network would take up to five years to build

British parliamentary defence committee discusses China's supremacy in technology

In this Tuesday, April 14, 2020 photo, a view of a cell tower after a fire, in Dagenham, England. Dozens of European cell towers have been destroyed in recent arson attacks that officials and wireless companies say are fueled by groundless conspiracy theories linking new 5G mobile networks and the coronavirus pandemic. (Stefan Rousseau/PA via AP)

An alliance of countries will have to pool resources to overtake China's dominant position in 5G networks, experts told a special investigation by the British parliament’s defence committee on Tuesday.

If the US and Britain joined forces with Japan and South Korea, then in “three to five” years they might be able to create an alternative to China's Huawei and its leadership in 5G technology.

The committee, chaired by the former defence minister Tobias Ellwood, was examining the security implications of 5G.

MPs were told that Chinese state subsidies estimated at $75 billion allowed Huawei to mass produce hardware that it could sell far cheaper than other companies.

But Andre Pienaar, of cyber security firm C5 Capital, said Huawei equipment was “shoddy” and “opens the back door for cyber attack”.

The move to 5G has proved to be controversial in Britain, with many politicians in the ruling Conservative Party opposed to the technological influence it may give China.

Mr Ellwood said: “China is developing to its own standards – the West is not united and there is a worry [about] the direction of travel this takes us in. There is a split in world standards, where China benefits from the rules-based order, but it does not want the responsibility of a superpower knowing it cannot uphold the standards that superpowers should be upholding for the benefit of the rest of the world.”

The evolution from 4G to 5G was regarded as a step change in technology, enabling the so-called “internet of things” from driverless cars, water systems, smart cities and power grids. Mobile phone masts will be replaced with devices attached to objects such as street lamps allowing very high speed communication and a huge reliance on the internet.

Emily Taylor, chief executive of research and security company Oxford Information Labs, told MPs that China was “well down the path” of fulfilling its ambition of international technical dominance.

“We will all have to cope with standards, technologies and equipment created by a superpower that does not share our values. Of course, Chinese ambitions in this sphere are aided by the fact that, at the moment, the US is a rather erratic partner.”

Ms Taylor said that there was a “fundamental re-architecting of the way the internet works in ways which we can expect to benefit Chinese political ambitions”.

While Huawei has been part of the UK’s 4G network since 2005, it is blocked from any access to national security networks and its activities are closely monitored by the cyber security teams at the specialist GCHQ agency.

Although China might not take advantage of the insecure networks other states, such as Russia, could be influenced to mount attacks on its behalf, MPs were told.