Huawei hit with security questions as it unveils high-speed rural internet project

Huawei Canada was hounded by questions about national security concerns and its ties to the Chinese government today as it announced that it will bring high-speed internet to a number of northern and rural communities.

'Trust is built over time,' says Huawei Canada vice-president

Alykhan Velshi, vice president of corporate affairs at Huawei Canada, speaks during a press conference in Ottawa on Monday, July 22, 2019. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

Huawei Canada was hounded by questions about national security concerns and its ties to the Chinese government today as it announced that it will bring high-speed internet to a number of northern and rural communities.

With tensions between China and Canada still running high over the arrest of Huawei's chief financial officer in Vancouver, the Chinese telecommunications company announced Monday that it has federal approval to partner with two companies, Ice Wireless and Iristel, to connect 70 remote communities to faster wireless by 2025.

The plan includes connecting 20 communities in the Arctic and 50 communities in Northeastern Quebec with 4G LTE networks. There are plans to bring the service to parts of Newfoundland and Labrador as well.

But the announcement was overtaken by questions about the company's demands on the federal government and concerns that the company would pass intelligence onto the Chinese government.

Huawei has long insisted it is not a state-controlled company and denies engaging in intelligence work for Beijing. However, Chinese law dictates that companies must support, co-operate with and collaborate in national intelligence work.

"Every Huawei employee in Canada ... has to follow Canadian laws. I don't know anything about Chinese laws, because they don't apply to me because I am living here in Canada," Alykhan Velshi, Huawei Canada's vice-president of corporate affairs, told a group of reporters Monday.

"We all have to follow Canadian laws, Canadian laws on these sorts of issues like espionage and pilfering data and all that are very clear, which is that it's illegal."

Stephanie Carvin, a former analyst for CSIS and assistant professor at the Norman Patterson School of International Affairs at Carleton University, says by launching new ads and by trying to stir up positive news about connecting Canada's north, Huawei is trying to rebuild its image. 

"Huawei is trying to convey the message to Canadians that it's a trustworthy partner, that it is invested in Canada and wants to help Canada grow. And then of course, in doing so, it's trying to downplay a lot of the national security questions that are very much hanging over its head as a company," she said.

'Technology, not politics'

Huawei's parent company has pushed for the release of executive Meng Wanzhou, who was arrested in Vancouver last December on a U.S. extradition request.

Soon after, China imprisoned two Canadians, Michael Spavor and Michael Kovrig, on national security concerns. 

The company also has a lot at stake in the government's review of the security implications of next-generation 5G cellular network technology, which promises to be 10 to 20 times faster than existing wireless connections and is designed to serve medical devices, self-driving cars and other connected tech.

This perception that it's sort of Dr. Evil's lair and we're toiling away at the latest world-ending scheme is false.- Alykhan Velshi, Huawei Canada's vice-president 

The United States, Australia and New Zealand have all banned Huawei's tech from 5G rollouts.

"Our hope is that any decision that is made is made based on technology, not politics," said Velshi.

"If you go to our office in Kanata or you go to our office in Markham, this perception that it's sort of Dr. Evil's lair and we're toiling away at the latest world-ending scheme is false. It's a bunch of engineers solving engineering problems. Trust is built over time."

Huawei Canada stresses it follows Canadian laws

3 years ago
Duration 1:11
VP of Corporate Affairs at Huawei Canada Alykhan Velshi, stresses the company follows all Canadian laws, after making an announcement it will help bring 4G wireless services to 70 northern communities.

A spokesperson for Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale said the 5G review will be completed in "due course."

"Public Safety Canada and its partners at the Communications Security Establishment, as well as Global Affairs Canada and Innovation, Science, and Economic Development, are working together on this important issue," wrote Scott Bardsley in an email.

"We will be taking appropriate decisions in due course. We will ensure that our networks are kept safe for Canadians."

Velshi said the rural project, which includes supplying radios and antennas, was approved under the federal Security Review Program, which is designed to protect critical infrastructure.

"The government of Canada takes the security of Canada's telecommunications networks seriously. In the context of current 3G/4G/LTE networks, a Canadian Security Review Program is in place to mitigate the cyber security risks," said Bardsley.

Michael Byers, an Arctic-affairs expert at the University of British Columbia, told the Canadian Press that Ottawa is creating conditions for the telecom giant Huawei to create a monopoly on high-speed internet in Canada's Far North, leaving its residents vulnerable to Beijing's will.

"The issue is whether it's OK for a Chinese company to potentially have a monopoly over communications in remote communities in Canada's Arctic," he said.

"Not because that's a sovereignty threat, but because it leaves those communities very exposed in the event that relations between China and Canada break down."

With files from the Canadian Press

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