OPINION | Northern Canada could be left out in the cold if Ottawa passes Huawei 5G ban
Huawei’s investment in the North could be double-edged sword for remote communities
The decision whether to exclude Huawei from Canada's 5G network due to security concerns remains to be made, but the company is already a major 3G and 4G player, especially in the far North.
Huawei has been operating in Canada since 2008, and unbeknownst to many in southern Canada, has partnered with Canadian companies like Ice Wireless and Iristel to bring high speed internet access to communities in the Yukon, Northwest Territories, and Nunavut. In 2012, Huawei announced an agreement to enhance 3G coverage in the three territories. Former N.W.T. premier Bob McLeod even attended the signing event in Shanghai.
Despite the political fallout from the Meng Wanzhou case, Huawei's work in northern Canada has continued apace. The company announced its 4G rollout for remote northern communities in July 2019 and was present at the Arctic Development Expo in June 2019 in Inuvik.
Huawei's substantial investment and commitment to improving northern telecom infrastructure constitutes a double-edged sword for northerners. The costs associated with northern infrastructure projects together with historically sporadic federal funding means fewer service providers are able or willing to operate in the North.
If Huawei is banned from Canada's 5G network, then much of the funds and human capital already invested in working with the Chinese company and its Canadian partners will be squandered, negatively impacting territorial governments and everyday Canadians alike.
The ongoing uncertainty over Huawei's ultimate fate also poses risks for territories already co-operating with Huawei, and can also delay potential partnerships. The government of Nunavut, for example, "is awaiting guidance and direction from the federal government as to whether and how to interact with Huawei," stated Dean Wells, Nunavut's corporate chief information officer, in an email.
Digital gap still rural and northern
While 3G coverage has expanded, technological progress has outpaced infrastructure improvements, with the CRTC now reporting that only 40.8 per cent of rural Canadians have access to high speed internet.
This digital gap has long hampered northern Canada, especially with the rise of social media and e-commerce. Local internet connections in places like Iqaluit remain spotty, causing frustration for local businesses, citizens and tourists.
This would only further widen the digital divide between northern and southern Canada.- Jeremy Luedi
Seeking out alternate service providers in the event of a Huawei ban would incur further costs for the territories, and delay the rollout of high speed internet services in the region. Whereas other telecom partners could fill the gap left by Huawei, the removal of an experienced provider from an already underserved, and challenging market will nevertheless complicate infrastructure upgrade plans.
Fast internet and cheap data encourages migration to the North, keeps communities connected, allows local businesses to sell and advertise to customers across the world, and enhances access to telehealth and e-learning services.
"We strongly believe that everyone should be connected to 4G LTE, no matter where they live in Canada — even in areas where high speed service may not be economically viable," stated Eric Li, president of Huawei Canada, in a press release.
This is in line with Ottawa's own goal of providing high speed internet to all Canadians by 2030. Much remains to be done on this front, as 5.4 million Canadians — or 15 per cent of the population — did not have access to high speed internet as of September 2019, according to the CRTC.
Links to Beijing, local monopoly worry security experts
The expenses associated with building and maintaining such infrastructure in northern Canada can deter providers, so Huawei's regional focus is doubly important.
Huawei got its start servicing rural China, so it has a long history of working in remote areas, but some are concerned that Huawei is establishing a monopoly in northern Canada.
Richard Fadden, former national security advisor to the prime minister, has spoken publicly about the potential security concerns which surround Huawei, specifically its obligation under Chinese law to aid Beijing's security institutions when called upon. Similarly, Michael Byers, an Arctic affairs expert at the University of British Columbia, argues that the threat posed by a Chinese company wielding a monopoly on communication infrastructure in the Arctic is a serious one.
Huawei did not respond to a request for comment on these criticisms.
As things stand, northern communities face two difficult choices: either Huawei is permitted to continue its operations in the far North, thus potentially giving the company the ability to interfere with local communications at Beijing's behest, or Huawei is banned from Canada's 5G network.
If the latter choice is taken, the barriers to doing business in the North combined with Huawei's dominant presence and infrastructure ownership could effectively shut parts of the North out of Canada's eventual 5G network. This would only further widen the digital divide between northern and southern Canada, undermining Ottawa's efforts to achieve equal access for all Canadians.