“Makedonski Telekom” (Macedonian Telecom) and “A1 Makedonija” (A1 Macedonia) telecoms are currently modernizing their complete mobile telephony infrastructure and working on the implementation of their 5G networks in North Macedonia. Unlike all the previous instances of a technological makeover, North Macedonia as a member of NATO and signatory of the Clean Network Program initiated by the USA, this time decided to exclude Chinese technological companies from the development of the national 5G network.
Former Prime Minister Zoran Zaev and Under Secretary for Economic Growth and Environment at the State Department, Keith Krach, on the 23rd of October 2020 signed the Memorandum of Understanding on 5G Security, with which North Macedonia took the obligation to align the national policies about the development of electronic communications with those of the EU and the USA.
At the signing of the Memorandum two years ago in the capital Skopje, North Macedonia and the USA stressed the importance of encouraging participation of relevant and trustworthy network suppliers of hardware and software on the 5G market, bearing in mind the risk assessment and promoting the framework for efficient protection of 5G networks from unauthorized third-party access.
“Considering the advantages of the wireless communications of the fifth generation (5G), this Memorandum of Understanding is of vital importance for the future prosperity of our country from an economic viewpoint, as well as for the national security”, said Zaev, the prime minister at the time.
Immediately after the signing of the memorandum, the Embassy of PR of China in Skopje issued an official statement, strongly opposing it, and requesting from the USA to stop interfering in the “usual cooperation between China and North Macedonia”.
“From interfering in the expansion of 5G in other countries, up to open coercion of the allies to exclude Huawei, some American politicians have no scruples to abuse government authority as long as that authority can prevent Chinese businesses to gain an advantage in 5G”, says the remark of the Chinese Embassy in Skopje published after the signing of the memorandum.
The research Understanding the Tools, Narratives and Influence of Chinese “Soft Power” in North Macedonia of the Association ESTIMA and the Konrad Adenauer Foundation, the author Ana Krstinovska states that the response to the signed Memorandum with the USA in 2020 was fierce, considering the fact that Chinese diplomats in North Macedonia, to a large extent, in the past refrained from confrontational rhetoric.
“The Embassy published its strongest reaction yet after the signing of the Memorandum of Understanding between North Macedonia and the USA in the initiative for a Clean Network of 5G technology in October 2020. The anger, however, seemed to be directed entirely towards the statement of the US high official “, Krstinovska states in the research.
Going back to the present, the Electronic Communications Agency (ECA) of North Macedonia informed Meta.mk that the signed memorandum with the USA was the reason to amend the Law on Electronic Communications (LEC). The amendments and additions were adopted in April 2021.
“These amendments gave ECA additional competence in the area of network security. The amendments of the LEC envisage penning regulations for the methodology for assessing the risk profile of the suppliers and manufacturers of network equipment, as well as for the list of critical components and sensitive parts of electronic communication networks. ECA adopted these regulations in autumn 2021, and they went into force immediately”, ECA informed.
The agency on the 11th of July this year, after the successfully implemented tender procedure, awarded the licenses for the frequency bands of 700 MHz and 3.6 GHz to the two network operators in the country, The conditions state that by the end of 2023, one Macedonian city should be covered with 5G signal, and at the end of 2025 the main transport corridors should have 5G coverage. Until the end of 2027, all urban areas should be covered with 5G, while all citizens should have the opportunity to access the 5G services, for mobile telephony and internet access, no later than the end of 2029.
Both Macedonian Telecom and A1 Macedonia implemented procurement procedures for the telecommunications infrastructure for 5G networks throughout North Macedonia. The winner was the Swedish company Ericsson and it already started installing the necessary base stations, as well as other telecommunications equipment.
Nevertheless, both telcos are cautious when it comes to giving information on whether the Chinese telecommunication equipment producers, such as Huawei and ZTE, tried to participate in the already finalized tender procedure. Macedonian Telecom informed Meta.mk that the procurement procedures are implemented in compliance with internal rules that adhere to the principles of confidentiality of both the offers and the identity of the bidders.
On three occasions, on the 7th, 10th, and the 16th of November, Meta.mk sent e-mails to A1 Macedonia with queries on the topic. We even tried to call some of the persons responsible for contacts with the media, but until the publication of this article, we received no reply.
Macedonian Telecom informed that they had reached the final phase of the project for modernization of the telecommunications network and installing the 5G equipment. In one year they managed to cover 26 towns, together with the nearby settlements. Their plan is to complete the modernization in the beginning of 2023, in cooperation with Ericsson. The entire mobile telephony equipment, along with all base stations, is being modernized.
“With this, most of the population on the territory of Macedonia will be able to benefit from the 5G services”, claims Macedonian Telecom.
In November Meta.mk tried to contact three professors from the Faculty of Electrical Engineering and Information Technologies at the Sts. Cyril and Methodius University but also from Mother Theresa University in Skopje, in order to querie the expert public on the same topic, but despite the telephones calls and the e-mails to arrange meetings or at least to get a written response on the questions sent, the professors refused to discuss about the impact of the Chinese technological companies on the telecommunications infrastructure in the country.
On the other hand, the Electronic Communications Agency informed that Macedonian Telecom officially reported to ECA that its 3G network will be shut down in December 2022 at the latest. Nevertheless, neither the institutions. nor the telecom operators were in the mood to talk about the procurement of 3G and 4G network in the country performed by the Chinese technological companies Huawei and ZTE.
Part of this equipment is still in use, but well-informed sources for Meta.mk reported that one of the two telecom operators will have to continue to use the Chinese equipment for 3G and 4G networks for some time in 2023.
ECA was asked when the agreements for installing 3G and 4G network were signed with the two Chinese companies, but the Agency explained that these answers need to be sought from Macedonian Telecom and A1 Macedonia, because according to the Law on Electronic Communications, they have no obligation to report to ECA about such agreements. We did not receive a direct answer to this question from Macedonian Telecom, while A1 Macedonia did not reply at all.
USA’s “Clean Network” and the technological battle abroad
According to the American State Department, the program “Clean Network” is a comprehensive approach of the American administration for the protection of the nation’s property, including the privacy of the citizens, as well as the most sensitive information of the companies, from intrusions by malevolent players, such as the Chinese Communist Party, specifies the website of the US State Department.
“Clean Network”, signed by North Macedonia in 2020, aims at responding to the long-term threats to data privacy, security, human rights, and principal cooperation imposed on the free world from authoritarian malignant actors. On the 5th of August 2020, the US Secretary of State, Michael Pompeo, announced the expansion of the program “Clean Network” that, inter alia, included “clean” shops for mobile applications in the USA, “clean” applications that would stop the Chinese manufacturers of smart telephones make certain untrustworthy applications accessible by means of their reinstallation or other means.
The web site of the US State Department even lists the countries that have agreed to the implementation of the program “Clean Network”, such as the United Kingdom, Sweden, Poland, Estonia, Greece, Latvia, Romania, and Denmark, but also some of the biggest telecommunication companies worldwide.
Which technological company will provide the equipment for a 5G network is a hot topic in the global media in the last two to three years. At the end of November, the American Federal Communications Commission banned imports and sales of new telecommunications equipment from Huawei and ZTE, due to concerns for US national security, BBC informed.
Apart from these two Chinese companies, the ban of imports and sales is applied to Hikvision, Dahua and Hytera, that produce equipment for video surveillance and two-way radio systems.
On the 22nd of June this year, Reuters reported about the ruling of a Swedish appeals court that confirmed the judgment banning Huawei from selling 5G equipment in Sweden, following the decision of the Swedish telecommunications regulator in 2020 to ban Huawei from supplying 5G equipment to Swedish telecommunications companies, acting upon the concerns of the Swedish Security Service.
Sweden demanded from its telecommunications companies to remove the telecommunications equipment purchased from Huawei and ZTE from the existing infrastructure in the country by the 1st of January 2025.
This year Canada announced the ban of the Chinese companies Huawei and ZTE from possible cooperation on the 5G networks with Canadian telcos, reported BBC on the 20th of May. Canadian authorities explained that such an action would improve the services of mobile internet and protect the security of Canadians. The Chinese technological companies opposed the decision. However,a decision prohibiting participation in the 5G network construction had already been adopted in the USA, United Kingdom, Australia, and New Zealand, BBC reported. Canada’s decision was made following consultations with its security agencies and its closest allies, while China responded to this act by claiming that it was “an excuse for political manipulation”.
In the beginning of this year, EUractiv wrote about the different policies of EU member-states towards the suppliers of 5G telecommunication equipment. Non-harmonized rules among the EU members related to the checks of suppliers of equipment for 5G networks present a security risk for the EU, stated the Report of the European Court of Auditors published on the 24th of January.
The entire subject has been raised to the international level by the United States of America, pinpointing that China might be able to use Huawei’s telecommunications equipment for spying. The company responded by claiming that such a risk to national security does not exist in other countries where their equipment is installed. The USA says that due to the jurisprudence and one-party system of China, Chinese technological companies, with representatives of the Communist Party in their management boards, cannot refuse to secure the information that the Chinese Government might demand.
Back on the Macedonian soil, the Electronic Communications Agency informed Meta.mk that so far, no privacy violation of citizens or personal data collection by misuse of the equipment has been registered in North Macedonia.
5G is not a personal data protection, but spreading disinformation topic for discussion
For some years now, instead of discussing the hot topics of personal data protection and the privacy of citizens, along with national security issues by possible spying activities, the 5G topic in North Macedonia has been abused by the conspiracy theorists and was the subject of disinformation wave about its alleged harmful effects on human healths. This was especially viral in the social networks.
The Truthmeter fact-checking service in the last few months has debunked a number of posts on Facebook profiles, disinforming that 5G networks cause cancer in people or that they generated COVID-19. A false claim that 5G network in combination with non-existent microchips in vaccines are weapons of the efforts to control the world population was debunked on the 24th of May this year.
Another false claim related to 5G was debunked on the 9th of July, when Truthmeter warned about the dissemination of an old video with disinformation about the alleged link between the coronavirus and 5G networks. On the 23rd of July, another debunk was published, which deemed as false a Facebook post that claims that COVID-19 was a consequence of 5G radiation. Facebook post arguing that 5G networks cause cancer in humans was also debunked on the 19th of October, as well as the post claiming that in the USA 5G antennas are camouflaged as cacti.
Such disinformation narratives about the 5G networks allegedy harming people’s health are present for quite some time in the country, and on the 31st of May 2020 a protest was organized in the front of the Macedonian government against „the fake COVID pandemic, the enforced vaccination and the installation of 5G antennas“. That said however, such fake news has not caused problems for the installation of 5G network in North Macedonia – at least not for now.