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Planning an IoT project – have you considered a renewed Cold War?

While a slightly hyperbolic headline, there is a definite sense that the networks of the future are going to be subject to a lot more political will than their predecessors. As Russia plans a test to see what would happen to it if it gets shut out from the rest of the World Wide Web, the USA is stepping up its attacks on Huawei, preparing an executive order to ban Chinese equipment from American wireless networks, and potentially punish other countries that opt to use the cheaper vendors. So what does that mean for ambitious IoT projects?

With the telecoms and networking world now firmly stuck between the superpowers, as they jockey for position on the world stage, there’s a real risk that anyone planning an IoT project is going to fall foul of a change in tone or a tempestuous fallout. Picking a strategy with a ten-year payoff now looks a whole lot riskier than it did just a few quarters ago. Such a climate is not conducive to the largescale projects that drive IoT deployment volumes.

What’s more, it is quite difficult to provide advice in that sort of environment. Do you opt for a deployment now and hope that the posturing never actually comes to blows, or do you hold back because you fear having to rip and replace a costly capex investment at the behest of a government or partner.

Compounding this is the notion that the IoT was going to be brought about by some element of global reconciliation. The growth of standards-based approaches, the penetration of dominant camps in the LPWAN arena, and most importantly, the translating power of a cloud-based platform, would have meant that truly global applications could be built.

Now however, it looks like the Western part of the Northern Hemisphere, with a smattering of Oceania, is going to side with the US and oust Huawei and ZTE, while the Eastern part and most of the Southern Hemisphere is going to be off-limits to the former. If you can’t do business with most of the emerging markets, because Uncle Sam says so, then doesn’t that leave the door open for Huawei in these developing economies?

Riot isn’t (yet) a political publication, so we will leave the discussion of geopolitical strategy to other outlets, but it must be reiterated that this climate is not good for both economic and IoT growth. The pieces were falling into line, showing how truly global IoT-powered systems could finally take root and grow, but now it seems that the game-board has been thoroughly upended.

The US executive order in question is expected to be signed into law imminently, after being touted for a while but not actually materializing, according to Politico. The rule would see Huawei and ZTE banned from supplying US carriers with networking equipment and services. Of course, such an announcement would dampen Huawei’s MWC, where a huge amount of business meetings take place with clients planning both 4G and 5G installations. Based on Politico’s report, announcing the order just ahead of the largest industry trade show is about sending a message.

National security is the justification for the US executive order, and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has said that said that the US might prevent companies that do business with Huawei and ZTE from selling to US government agencies. Pompeo said that such businesses could be conduits to Chinese surveillance, and so it was considering excluding such companies from its government contracts and programs.

This is a much more powerful move than the executive order, as it reaches far beyond the American border. This would extend to the Five Eyes partners, as well as much of NATO, although the UK has yet to follow in any similar bootlicking footsteps. Any data center that housed a Huawei box would suddenly be persona non grata, and potentially excommunicated from the US sphere of influence.

But this fear of Chinese interference is at odds with recent comments from the EU, where Despina Spanou, Director of Digital Society, Trust, and Cybersecurity, spoke to The Register to say that the union has not seen evidence that Huawei is a threat to it. More to the point, the EU can’t do as the US has done and block the vendor, as that decision is up to the member nations.

According to Spanou, member nations had not raised any such concerns about Huawei, and also pointed to a planned cybersecurity sticker scheme, which would indicate if a product or service had passed the EU-regulated security certification process. This would, it is hoped, create consumer demand for more secure products, but this is not yet law, nor does it sound like it would be a compulsory scheme – and we all know how well most voluntary schemes pan out.

The EU is prioritizing the adoption of such systems in transport, energy, and banking, according to Spanou, and also wants to train an additional 350,000 cybersecurity specialists inside the union, to help defend the nations and systems from attacks.

Now, it would be one thing if the US had evidence to back up its claims that Huawei was acting to undermine the USA at the behest of the Chinese government. Instead, there’s a distinct air of throwing stones in glass houses, especially with what was unearthed in the Snowden revelations.

Huawei has not been caught acting maliciously, to this end. The allegations of using shell companies to circumvent US sanctions on Iran do seem to have weight to them, and it seems that Huawei’s CFO is going to be made an example of accordingly, but the trump-card that Trump could actually play would be some concrete evidence that the USA’s claims hold water. Whether that card is still in-hand or whether it is part of an apoplectic bluffing gambit is still undecided – to the detriment of any major business planning to embrace extensive IoT-powered business transformation. Oh, and Supermicro’s share price is still in the toilet – that feels like a long time ago.

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