SaskTel’s 5G network ‘unlikely’ to use Huawei, says minister

Originally Published by Regina Leader Post
Author: Arthur White-Crummey

Saskatchewan is likely to rule out using Huawei equipment in SaskTel’s 5G network, according to the minister who handles the file, as the province criticizes a lack of federal leadership on an issue with national security implications.

Don Morgan, the minister responsible for SaskTel, signalled those plans to the Leader-Post on Tuesday.

He said the shift away from Huawei, which supplies equipment for SaskTel’s current 4G network, stems from the need to line up with what other carriers are doing. Bell and Telus both announced on June 2 that they were shifting to European suppliers. Morgan said it’s important to move in “lock step” to ensure streamlined service.

“We’re going to follow suit with what Bell and Telus are doing for our 5G. We will look at at other vendors, specifically Nokia and Ericsson,” he said.

“There is not a decision made, but it would be unlikely that we would have Huawei.”

He said cabinet will make a final decision “in the next while.”

Morgan said the faster and more reliable 5G technology, which is considered integral to the so-called Internet of things, will first come to Regina and Saskatoon. It could later come to Moose Jaw and Prince Albert, but Morgan acknowledged it is unlikely to be used in rural areas due to its comparatively short range.

Huawei has been caught up in concerns around spying that have prompted bans on its equipment, notably in the United States. As a Chinese company, it could be obliged to share data with the authoritarian regime in Beijing under state security laws.

Morgan said that was not the primary reason for SaskTel’s move away from the company, nor were diplomatic issues relating to the legal travails of Huawei’s former CFO

, Meng Wanzhou. He said those are “national issues” that are outside the province’s ambit. “We don’t have standalone foreign policy,” Morgan said.

But he criticized the federal government for not providing clear leadership.

“We’ve had little or no support from the federal government as far as them saying it is or is not an issue, but we know that there’s a growing amount of public concern around the security issues,” Morgan said, adding that a decision would have been appreciated “a year ago.”

“Any decision would have been better than the no decision that we had.”

The shift to European suppliers could lead to higher costs, Morgan admitted, though he could not provide a precise estimate.

“There’s no doubt the equipment costs more, and then there’s also a training and a conversion curve because we’d be operating two systems,” he said. “So it would certainly be a cost issue going forward.”

He also warned that the shift to new suppliers could lead to dropped calls as customers drive away from Huawei towers outside the cities.

“As you go into Regina or Saskatoon, right now it’s existing Huawei towers,” he said. “So if those towers get changed to Ericsson or Nokia, there’s every likelihood that as you cross from a Huawei area, the call would get dropped and you would have to redial.”

There is no precise timeline for when 5G will come to Regina and Saskatoon. Morgan said the pandemic is making a “big difference.”

He said the goal was to have something in place this year, though that might extend into 2021 under current circumstances.

Morgan said SaskTel is obliged to move at least as quickly as Bell and Telus due to roaming agreements.

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