Ministry drafts bill aimed at curbing Chinese 5G tech

Raul Rikk, Estonia's national cybersecurity policy director.
Raul Rikk, Estonia's national cybersecurity policy director. Source: ERR

The Ministry of Economic Affairs and Communications is preparing a regulation which would allow restricting the use of high-risk technologies in telecoms networks, a move which would bar Chinese tech giant Huawei, for instance, from constructing Estonia's 5G network.

The entry into force of the restrictions is also a precondition for moving forward with the 5G frequency licensing competition, ERR's online Estonian news reports.

In late 2019, Prime Minister Jüri Ratas (Center) met with US Vice President Mike Pence, with the pair agreeing on a joint Estonian-U.S. approach to 5G and its security, which should essentially exclude China's Huawei.

Huawei had face criticism for various aspects of its operations, especially U.S. allegations of its products containing backdoors for Chinese government espionage. The U.S. has imposed business restrictions on Huawei's activities there.

In mid-May, the Riigikogu passed the Electronic Communications Act Amendment Act, which allows the government to regulate which devices may be used in the Estonian telecoms network, in the interests ofensure national security. 

The regulation reportedly also offers clearer control of communications equipment manufactured outside the EU.

"Just by reading our foreign intelligence agency's annual report, we know that Chinese technology, for example, is clearly higher risk," said Raul Rikk, who heads up Estonia's cyber security policy.

"It's no secret that we are talking specifically about technology produced in China at the moment, but this regulation is universal in and of itself. It is not just about Chinese technology, but about all that we are forced to define as a higher-risk technology in the future," he added.

Regulations gives 'score' to tech firms involved in 5G

As it is virtually impossible for the state to fully control each device, it is planned to introduce manufacturer-specific restrictions, Rikk went on. "If we give permission to a certain manufacturer, this is in itself easily feasible. But this is where the basic complexity comes from. Since we do not always control the technology, we have to make a fundamental decision as to whether we trust the manufacturer or not. This is precisely because the administrative capacity to accurately control each gadget is limited in all countries," said Rikk.

The regulations will assign a security score to each manufacturer, which will deem them suitable, or not, for use in telecoms installation, from a security perspective, with criteria such as being listed on a public stock exchange, being in the EU and having other positive assets giving it a higher score, Rikk said.

Should the regulation be adopted, it will also affect tech already in use and in place, meaning some of this infrastructure is likely to be required to be replaced.

Of Estonian telecoms tech firms, Rikk added that: "Those who are more dependent on high-risk technology for a certain technology are clearly against any restrictions in the interests of business. This makes perfect sense. The companies stand for the interests of shareholders and for profit."

However, security trumps all, Rikk added.

"This is a fundamentally critical infrastructure on which our entire e-state is based. If we do not guarantee security in any way, then there is no point in carrying out anything else. We still have to minimize these fundamental threats."

The draft could reach consultation stage, where telecoms companies will be able to submit their own proposals and comments, in August, with the government potentially giving it the green light in September.

"We have to do this before we can move on with the 5G frequency competition at all," Rikk added.

China's Huawei is the third largest manufacturer of 5G network equipment next to Swedish and Finnish companies Ericsson and Nokia, with the latter two stating that their equipment is safe for use by sovereign nations.

5G ("fifth generation") tech refers to cellular networks which will use higher frequencies than the 4G networks they will replace, giving them greater bandwidth and higher download speeds, among other improvements.

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Editor: Andrew Whyte

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