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Thailand Moves Forward With Chinese Tech Company Huawei To Build 5G Network


Countries around the world are preparing for 5G, the next generation of wireless technology. We take a look in this month's All Tech Considered.


CORNISH: The U.S. is urging allies not to let the Chinese company Huawei build their 5G networks. U.S. officials say Huawei is a security threat. But some countries don't have much of a choice. NPR's Rob Schmitz reports from Thailand.

ROB SCHMITZ, BYLINE: Above a street corner on a college campus in rural Thailand, a single antenna rising a few feet above the third-story roof looks unremarkable. Campus official Udomporn Tundkasiri has to point it out so that I don't miss it.

UDOMPORN TUNDKASIRI: (Foreign language spoken).

SCHMITZ: That, Udomporn announces, is the first 5G antenna in Thailand. I was expecting more. 5G, after all, is billed as the biggest innovation since perhaps the Internet itself. This next generation of mobile broadband will carry data quicker than ever, connecting phones, cars, homes, ships, electrical grids, armies. Everything that can be connected will be connected with lightning speed along its signal.

In other words, 5G is a new type of power, a power that Udomporn's school, Kasetsart University in the state of Si Racha, was chosen by Thailand's government to be the first to test. But when the country's first 5G test bed was announced, Udomporn says one company beat the competition to get in on it.

TUNDKASIRI: (Through interpreter) Huawei was faster than the others. They invested millions of dollars, set up their equipment and will test it in the coming weeks.


SCHMITZ: Amidst a 5G-induced construction boom on campus, Huawei has already established its own office. The university also provided offices to telecom companies Ericsson and Nokia, but they sit empty. Huawei says it's been busy securing at least 30 commercial 5G contracts around the world.

Djitt Laowattana chairs the strategy committee for TOT, Thailand's state-owned telecommunications company, which owns most of the country's telecoms towers. He says Huawei's low prices and high-quality equipment are attractive to a developing country like Thailand.

DJITT LAOWATTANA: Everybody in Thailand know they come to the market with maybe 50 percent of the price.

SCHMITZ: Djitt, also helps run the economic zone that's testing 5G for Thailand, says he's aware of suspicions about how Huawei could use its equipment to enable Chinese espionage. But he says he's not worried about spying as much as he is about Huawei's bargain basement prices beating out the competition and threatening to become a monopoly over the 5G market in Thailand.

LAOWATTANA: The fact that they have a much lower price, they will kill all other competitors. Some people in Thailand still concerned that - what happens after that if, in the market, left just a Chinese company, Chinese equipment?

SCHMITZ: If, as Djitt says, Thailand is left with only one Chinese company dominating 5G, the results will be pretty clear, says Benjamin Zawacki, author of "Thailand: Shifting Ground Between The U.S. And A Rising China." As the title of his book suggests, Zawacki sees Thailand shifting its alliances from the U.S. to China as Chinese investment in the region reaches historic levels. Huawei, even though it's a private company, has close ties to China's government. And if Huawei continues to win 5G contracts in the country, Zawacki says China will likely use that to solidify its influence over the country.

BENJAMIN ZAWACKI: The extent to which this 5G technology is going to control not only telecommunications but so many other things that are absolutely fundamental to any society's ability to function and govern itself means that, well, we better stay onside with China because if we don't, their ability to manipulate our economy, our infrastructure, our energy sources, our databases, et cetera, becomes that much greater.

SCHMITZ: Zawacki says the U.S. should be concerned because of Thailand's strategic location. The Trump administration changed the way it referred to this region from Asia-Pacific to the Indo-Pacific.

ZAWACKI: Thailand is at the center of that. Geographically, it's right in the middle. And so while it tries to maintain positive relationships with both countries, that sort of neutrality is not something it's going to be able to gift itself forever.

SCHMITZ: Especially, he says, if it's being forced to choose in the event of a conflict between the U.S. and China. With a Chinese company controlling all communications and interconnections between machines, the fear is that choice will have already been made. Rob Schmitz, NPR News, Si Racha, Thailand. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Rob Schmitz is NPR's international correspondent based in Berlin, where he covers the human stories of a vast region reckoning with its past while it tries to guide the world toward a brighter future. From his base in the heart of Europe, Schmitz has covered Germany's levelheaded management of the COVID-19 pandemic, the rise of right-wing nationalist politics in Poland and creeping Chinese government influence inside the Czech Republic.