India to order telco network audit for security issues connected with China

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India is preparing to direct all national telecom operators to undertake an information security audit of their networks to check for possible backdoor and trapdoor vulnerabilities that may pose challenges to the country’s sovereignty amid heightened tensions on the India-China border.

The country’s Department of Telecommunications (DoT) will soon order all telcos to initiate the audit through agencies or auditors empanelled with the Indian Computer Emergency Response Team (Cert-In), as per daily newspaper the Indian Express. It will ask all telcos to submit the audit report by October-end. 

Cert-In is India’s official cyber security agency which combats cyberattacks and guards the Indian cyber space.

The move comes at a time when the Indian government is mulling over taking a call on Chinese telecom gear vendors’ participation in 5G trials and commercial network rollout. 

India has already barred Chinese vendors like Huawei and ZTE from supplying equipment to state-run telecom operators Bharat Sanchar Nigam Ltd (BSNL) and Mahanagar Telephone Nigam Ltd (MTNL).

“There have been reports that Chinese vendors have installed back doors and trap doors in telecom networks of other countries where they have worked on 4G and other older technologies. We just want to be doubly sure there are no such gaps in our networks,” an top government official was quoted as saying by the publication.

State-run telcos BSNL and MTNL have already been ordered by the DoT to begin the network audit process.

India is also expected to start 5G field trials across various metro cities in September this year but without any involvement of Huawei and ZTE.

The DoT has reportedly asked Airtel and Vodafone Idea to submit fresh applications for 5G trials with Nokia and Ericsson for cities where they previously submitted applications with Huawei and ZTE.

According to a report by the Economic Times, Airtel has started the process and will fill the new application within this week. Vodafone Idea, on the other hand, is yet to decide on submitting fresh applications. 

Airtel is now applying for Kolkata and Bengaluru cities with Nokia and Ericsson instead of ZTE and Huawei, respectively.

The latest move, the report said, will allow the DoT to “wriggle out of a tricky situation” and allocate 5G spectrum for trials to telcos without having to decide on Huawei and ZTE immediately.

Huawei and ZTE work with Bharti Airtel and Vodafone Idea in various telecom circles. Airtel, however, reduced dependence on Huawei lately by swapping its network in Rajasthan state with Ericsson’s 4G gear, and is now replacing Huawei in Tamil Nadu state. 

ZTE provided technology to state-run telecom operator BSNL for 4G networks, while Huawei helped the telco build its 2G and 3G networks. MTNL, which operates in Mumbai and Delhi, had procured gear from Huawei for itsb 2G and 3G network

According to estimates, around 30% of Airtel’s network is built by Chinese telecom companies. Vodafone Idea’s exposure to Chinese vendors is far greater.

The Indian government had in June banned 59 Chinese apps, including TikTik amid heightened geopolitical tensions between both countries. This was followed by another round where “lite” versions of these apps were banned along with a few more Chinese apps, including Xiaomi’s Mi Browser. 

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