On 25 April 2019, Viettel – Vietnam’s largest mobile carrier – announced that it had successfully completed the trial of a fifth-generation (5G) broadcast station in Hanoi with the speed of 600 – 700Mbps, reportedly on par with the speed of Verizon’s 5G network in the United States. Viettel will also conduct a 5G network test in May 2019. If successful, the company may start to offer 5G services soon afterwards, turning Vietnam into one of the first countries in the region to run 5G networks.
Notably, Viettel claimed to develop its own core technologies for 5G networks, including 5G chips and 5G devices. Specifically, the firm aims to produce 80% of its telecom core network infrastructure equipment by 2020. Apart from self-developed equipment, the company will also use gears from other suppliers. However, the company made clear that it did not use Huawei equipment, even for its current 4G networks. Within Vietnam, MobiFone, the other mobile carrier that has been licensed for 5G network trial, has adopted Samsung’s technologies. Meanwhile, Vinaphone, another major telco that is likely to receive 5G trial license soon, has entered into a partnership with Nokia to deploy its 5G network.
The absence of Huawei in Vietnam’s 5G market so far is in stark contrast with the approach of some regional countries like the Philippines or Thailand where mobile carriers continue to use Huawei equipment for their 5G networks despite controversies related to security risks posed by Huawei’s equipment.
Vietnam’s decision not to use Huawei seems to derive from a combination of economic and security considerations.
First, as China remains a substantial security threat for Vietnam, Vietnam has good reasons to avoid using telecom equipment made by Chinese companies in general and Huawei in particular. Some past cyberattacks, including a major one on check-in systems at Noi Bai and Tan Son Nhat airports in July 2016, raised further concerns about the vulnerabilities of Vietnam’s critical infrastructure systems vis-à-vis state-sponsored cyber attacks, for which China is frequently attributed. Choosing to use self-developed equipment or those from non-Chinese suppliers will be a safer option for Vietnam. As acknowledged by a Viettel representative in an interview with Nikkei Asian Review, Viettel decided to develop and produce core network equipment “to avoid the risk of being unable to support the safety and security of the national telecommunications network”.
Second, as Vietnam is seeking to develop its high-tech industries to realize its industrialization blueprint, allowing the use of inexpensive Huawei equipment will discourage Vietnamese firms from developing indigenous technologies and lead to a dependence on Chinese ones. Against this backdrop, Viettel’s plan to develop its own 5G chips and core network infrastructure equipment provides yet another convenient justification for Vietnam to shy away from Huawei gears. From Viettel’s perspective, as the firm is currently operating mobile networks in 10 overseas markets, developing its own 5G technologies will create a competitive edge for the company both domestically and internationally.
Finally, as Vietnam is making efforts to grow its security and defence ties with the United States, heeding US warnings about the security risks arising from Huawei’s 5G technologies will send a positive message to Washington about the alignment of the two countries’ security interests, thereby strengthening mutual trust. Such an increasing trust will in turn facilitate Vietnam’s future security cooperation with the US and its allies, especially in the area of intelligence sharing.
Going forward, whether Viettel and other local firms can successfully develop their own 5G technologies and produce reliable equipment at an affordable price will determine if Vietnam’s approach is sustainable. In the short term, given Viettel’s still limited technological capabilities, cooperation with non-Chinese suppliers will be critical for the deployment of Vietnam’s 5G networks. Better security assurance will be sufficient to justify the decision not to use Huawei equipment. However, in the long run, if Vietnamese firms fail to realize their plans, the higher cost for deploying 5G networks due to their reliance on more expensive equipment from non-Chinese suppliers may cause Vietnam to rethink its approach, perhaps by allowing Huawei to provide non-core equipment.
For now, Huawei appears to be losing out to its competitors in Vietnam.
Dr Le Hong Hiep is Fellow at ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute. This Commentary first appeared in ISEAS Commentary.