It was a “huge mistake” that no member countries of the Five Eyes intelligence alliance have deep wireless technology capability, which has led to serious issues over the reliance on foreign companies from either China or Scandinavia, according to former Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull.
Speaking to InnovationAus, Mr Turnbull said it was a “failure of industrial policy” for Australia and the other Five Eyes nations to allow that a choice has to be made between the world’s four biggest telecommunications – either two from China or the other two from Scandinavia.
“One of the biggest mistakes I think the Americans made, and we’ve got some culpability there as do the British and Canadians and New Zealanders, is how did we get to the point where not one of the Five Eyes countries, let alone Japan, France or Germany, have got any capability in wireless technology?” Mr Turnbull told InnovationAus.
“If you are Telstra or AT&T and you want to move to 5G, you’ve got four vendors in the world at the moment. Two of them are Chinese and two of them are Scandanavian. That’s crackers,” he said.
“The Americans allowed themselves to be undercut on price by the Chinese vendors, and they saw their wireless capability disappear. And that was a huge mistake.”
The lack of a local option and more competition has led to the major controversies around the world over the use of Chinese telco Huawei’s equipment and services in 5G networks.
The Turnbull government moved to ban Huawei from participating in the build of Australia’s 5G network in 2018, while the former Labor government did the same with the National Broadband Network.
In his new memoir, Mr Turnbull revealed there was no “smoking gun” evidence that led to the banning of Huawei, with the decision instead a “hedge against a future threat”.
The former PM has continued to criticise the use of the Chinese company’s technology in recent months. At the start of the year, he said there would be issues with Five Eyes intelligence sharing if the UK government decided to use Huawei in its own 5G network.
Better industrial policy that kept some of these wireless technology companies within the US or another Five Eyes country could have avoided these issues, Mr Turnbull said.
“That was an example of an absence of mind, and you don’t need to have an old fashioned, inefficient industrial policy to say, ‘hang on, there are some things we want to be able to make here and we are going to make here’,” he said.
“Australia might say we’re a small country, we have to be more selective, but in the US, how did they allow so many companies to leave? Bell Labs for heaven’s sake belongs to Nokia, how crazy is that?”
Mr Turnbull also referenced his decision to build Australia’s new navy locally as an example of the importance of developing sovereign capability, especially in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“I very strongly took the view that we needed a sovereign capability in the defence industry, we needed to be more than just a consumer of other people’s technologies, we needed to be building and developing our own technologies,” he said.