American pressure against Chinese 5G faces difficulties in Africa

Pressão americana contra 5G chinês encontra dificuldades no continente africano
Original article By Adriano Maneo in Folha de S.Paolo

Translated for RIA by Naila Govan-Vassen

Key message

The main message in this article is around the USA’s pressure against Chinese companies offering 5G equipment and systems, especially Huawei and ZTE. The article makes reference to the Chinese systems being a threat to a country’s cyber security, as its usage allows confidential data to be leaked to Beijing. Britain, Japan, Australia and Brazil have aligned with the this US position. Brazil, despite the four major operators (Claro, Vivo, Oi, and TIM) having already done network tests with the Chinese and their competitors, has delayed its 5G auction, which was initially scheduled for November 2020. It may only take place in 2021, with likely restrictions on the Chinese company. This is due to Jair Bolsonaro’s government buying into the geopolitical struggle of the US. 

In Africa

The article reports that in the African context, it is highly unlikely that American pressure on 5G Chinese equipment and systems will have an effect. 

In South Africa and Lesotho, in some cities, Rain and Vodacom operators offer 5G commercially with Chinese Huawei technology – the main target of American pressure.

The tests were carried out in Uganda, Kenya and Nigeria, all with technology from China (both Huawei and the state-owned ZTE). Madagascar also tested, but used Sweden’s Ericsson’s technology.

According to Cobus Van Staden, senior researcher at the South African Institute of International Relations and an expert on relations between the continent and China, American pressure against Chinese 5G is unlikely to materialise in Africa. According to him, Huawei has already become part of African life and “in many cases the choice is between it or no internet”.

“Not only is Huawei’s equipment more affordable, but when the company negotiates a contract, it is facilitated by very effective financing from Chinese banks that take a few months to implement,” he said. In addition, the researcher says that the need to exchange equipment, as the United Kingdom will do, would make Huawei’s ban unworkable, since the telecommunications infrastructure of most African countries already has the presence of the Chinese company, which dominates 4G on the continent. “This is new equipment, which works well and would have to be replaced by other equipment for which there is no funding”.

Alison Gillwald, executive director of Research ICT Africa, a South African technology and communications think tank, also sees difficulties for American pressure on the continent. For her, as South Africans are not aligned with the US, there is not enough political or diplomatic pressure for the country to confront what the operators want.

“The cost of communication is unattainable for a large part of the population and 5G even more. Switching Huawei technology to a more expensive one would not make commercial sense,” says Gillwald.

For South African President, Cyril Ramaphosa, the choice is clear. “The US has been unable to imagine a better future that goes beyond 4 plus one G,” he said last year. “We cannot allow our economy to be contained because of this fight that the US is having and that was created because of jealousy.” The strong speech came after the country’s four main operators, who are highly attached to the Chinese company, said the possibility of Trump banning US companies from doing business with Huawei could generate “unwanted and damaging consequences” for them.

In Kenya, the Ministry of Communications’ cabinet secretary, Joseph Mucheru, followed a similar line, but in a less aggressive manner. In early August, he said his country is independent and would not stop testing with Huawei. “The government does not deal with suppliers. It is the operators who will decide who they want to work with,” he said.

Cyber-security in Africa

The article also made reference to Cyber-security not being a minor concern on the African continent, as it is one of the 15 priorities of the African Union in its Agenda 2063 development plan.  According to the African Union’s website, it is necessary to “ensure that these technologies are used for the benefit of African individuals, institutions and nation states, ensuring data protection and online security”.

The article also makes reference to the French newspaper Le Monde that reported (in 2018) that data from the computer systems of the African Union’s headquarters (Ethiopia), were being transferred for six years to Shanghai and accused Huawei of being involved. Huawei provided the building’s technological infrastructure. China and Huawei denied this and the report, which was based on anonymous sources did not convince the AU’s authorities, who extended a memorandum of understanding in 2019 to expand the technical partnership with Huawei.

Today, Africa has a population of 1.3 billion, with almost half of it born after 2000. By 2050, the population is expected to double, leading the continent to account for about a quarter of the world’s population. It is a promising market for technology companies, but the current picture is still one of low internet penetration, especially in rural areas.

Estimates by the International Telecommunication Union indicate that Sub-Saharan Africa had 80 mobile phone plans and 34 active mobile broadband plans per 100 inhabitants. In Brazil, for example, the numbers of active cellular plans and mobile broadband plans are 106.8 and 93.3 per 100 inhabitants, respectively. In addition to being less connected, the continent deals with an internet at comparatively low speeds.

Nevertheless, Professor Gillwald believes that African countries should not run themselves into the process of developing the new technology in the name of a supposed reduction of digital inequality. According to her, 5G only serves a restricted elite, and to avoid a sharp widening of ‘access inequality’ within a single country, a strong regulatory policy – which did not happen in telecommunications auctions in South Africa – will be needed. One example is the possibility of requiring operators to commit to completing 3G or 4G coverage in rural areas in order to gain authorisation to operate 5G.