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Telecom products: Govt to come out with ‘trusted, ‘non-trusted’ sources

The move could potentially make it more difficult for Chinese telecom equipment vendors like Huawei and ZTE to supply equipment to Indian telecom players.

Written by Aashish Aryan | New Delhi | December 17, 2020 3:02:50 am
As a part of the new national security directive, a list of sources from whom no product can be procured will also be provided to the telecom service providers.

The Cabinet Committee on Security on Wednesday approved the setting up of a new National Security Directive on telecommunication sector with an intent to classify telecom products and their sources under the ‘trusted’ and ‘non-trusted’ categories.

The move could potentially make it more difficult for Chinese telecom equipment vendors like Huawei and ZTE to supply equipment to Indian telecom players. The two companies have been under global scrutiny for allegedly installing ‘backdoor’ or ‘trap door’ vulnerabilities and spying for the Chinese government and have been banned by several countries.

“The methodology to designate trusted products will be devised by the designated authority, who is the National Cyber Security Coordinator. Telecom service providers are required to connect new devices which are designated trusted products. The designated authority will make its decision based on approval of a committee headed by the deputy NSA (National Security Advisor),” Telecom and Information Technology minister Ravi Shankar Prasad said.

He added that the committee, which will be called the National Security Committee on Telecom, will be headed by the deputy NSA, and have members from other departments and ministries, and independent experts as well as two members from the industry.

As a part of the new national security directive, a list of sources from whom no product can be procured will also be provided to the telecom service providers. The new directive, which will come into place 180 days after approval, will not ask telecom service providers to mandatorily replace the old and existing equipment.

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The move could potentially make it more difficult for Chinese telecom equipment vendors such as Huawei and ZTE to supply equipment to Indian telecom players. The companies have been under global scrutiny for allegedly installing ‘backdoor’ or ‘trap door’ vulnerabilities and spying for the Chinese government.

It does not impact the ongoing annual maintenance contracts or upgrades to old equipment either, Prasad said. “From among the sources declared as trusted source by the designated authority, those which meet the criteria of the Department of Telecom’s preferential market access scheme will be certified as India trusted sources.”

The Indian Express had, in July, reported that the Centre had asked all telecom operators to undertake an ‘information security audit’ of their networks. The objective of the audit was to specifically check for any ‘backdoor’ or ‘trap door’ vulnerabilities in the telecom networks, which can be exploited to extract information and pass on illegally to agencies around the world. A ‘backdoor’ or a ‘trap door’ is a bug installed in the telecom hardware that allows companies to listen in or collect data being shared on the network.

While almost 30 per cent of Bharti Airtel’s network comprises Chinese telecom equipment, it is as much as 40 per cent for Vodafone Idea. State-run telcos Bharat Sanchar Nigam Limited (BSNL) and Mahanagar Telephone Nigam Limited (MTNL) too have equipment from Chinese vendors, including Huawei and ZTE, in their 3G and older networks.

Though Prasad had earlier last year said that all vendors including Huawei and ZTE would be allowed to participate in 5G trials, their participation became difficult owing to developments later in the year. After a border skirmish at Galwan Valley in Ladakh on June 15, in which 20 Indian soldiers were killed, the government barred BSNL and MTNL from using Chinese equipment for the roll-out of its 4G network.

The Department of Telecommunications had then also hinted it would announce guidelines asking even private telcos to refrain from using Chinese equipment. No such guidelines have, however, been issued till now.

Mobile applications that either have Chinese origins or have central servers in China may also find re-entry in the market extremely difficult owing to the new conditions. The Centre has, since June, banned over 200 such apps, citing national security concerns.

Apart from the directive, the government will release at regular intervals new guidelines for effective monitoring and effective control of the network security of the telecom service providers.

“The Department of Telecom will suitably modify its guidelines and ensure monitoring of compliance by telecom service providers. The designated authority will put in place a portal for easy upload of application by the TSP and equipment vendors,” Prasad said.

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