This story was originally published by Meta.mk as part of the Western Balkans Anti-Disinformation Hub. An edited version is republished here under a content-sharing agreement between Global Voices and Metamorphosis Foundation.
Telecommunication companies Makedonski Telekom (Macedonian Telecom) and A1 Makedonija (A1 Macedonia) are currently modernizing their entire 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 US, decided this time to exclude Chinese technological companies from the development of the national 5G network.
On October 23, 2020, then Prime Minister Zoran Zaev and US Under Secretary for Economic Growth and Environment at the State Department Keith Krach signed the Memorandum of Understanding on 5G Security, with which North Macedonia took on the obligation to align national policies about the development of electronic communications with those of the EU and the US.
At the signing of the memorandum two years ago in the capital Skopje, North Macedonia and the US stressed the importance of encouraging the participation of relevant and trustworthy network suppliers of hardware and software on the 5G market, bearing in mind the risk assessment and promoting framework for the 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.
Immediately after the signing of the memorandum, the Embassy of the People's Republic of China in Skopje issued an official statement, strongly opposing it, and requesting the US to stop interfering in the “usual cooperation between China and North Macedonia.”
“From meddling in other countries’ 5G rollout to openly coercing allies into excluding Huawei, certain US politicians have no scruples resorting to state power as long as it can stop Chinese businesses from getting an edge in 5G,” reads the statement of the Chinese Embassy in Skopje published after the memorandum was signed.
In a paper published by the Association ESTIMA and the Konrad Adenauer Foundation, Ana Krstinovska states that the response to signing the memorandum with the US in 2020 was fierce, considering the fact that Chinese diplomats in North Macedonia had, 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 US 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.
Security issues related to 5G have been largely absent from the public debate in North Macedonia, where telecom companies are among top advertisers. In general, mainstream media promote various technological benefits, rather than reporting on geopolitical risks or privacy concerns. Meanwhile, populist disinformation networks tried to exploit the COVID-19 pandemic to incite panic by recycling and localizing 5G conspiracy theories present worldwide, via fringe online media and social network groups.
Returning to the present, the state regulatory body of North Macedonia, the Agency for Electronic Communications (AEK) informed Meta.mk that the signed memorandum with the US was the reason the Law on Electronic Communications (LEC) was amended in April 2021.
These amendments gave AEK 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. AEK adopted these regulations in autumn 2021, and they went into force immediately.
On July 11, 2022, the agency, after the successfully implementing a 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. By the end of 2027, all urban areas should be covered with 5G, while all citizens should have the opportunity to access 5G services, for mobile telephony and internet access, no later than the end of 2029.
Both Macedonian Telecom and A1 Macedonia initiated procurement procedures for the telecommunications infrastructure for 5G networks throughout North Macedonia. The winner was the Swedish company Ericsson, which has already started installing the necessary base stations, as well as other telecommunications equipment.
Macedonian Telecom is majority owned by Hungarian Magyar Telekom, a subsidiary of German Deutsche Telekom Group, with Macedonian government as minority shareholder. A1 Macedonia is owned by A1 Telekom Austria Group, a subsidiary of Mexican telecommunications conglomerate América Móvil owned by billionaire Carlos Slim.
Nevertheless, both telcos are cautious when it comes to providing information on whether 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 identities of the bidders.
On three occasions — November 7, 10, and 16 — Meta.mk e-mailed A1 Macedonia with queries on the topic. Meta.mk journalists also tried to call some of the persons responsible for contact with the media, but as of the publication of this article, received no reply.
Macedonian Telecom said that they had reached the final phase of the project to modernize the telecommunications network and install 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. All the 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,” Macedonian Telecom claims.
In November Meta.mk tried to contact three professors from the Faculty of Electrical Engineering and Information Technologies at the Ss. Cyril and Methodius University, and also from Mother Theresa University in Skopje, to discuss the subject with experts, but despite all efforts, the professors refused to discuss the impact of the Chinese technological companies on the telecommunications infrastructure in the country.
On the other hand, the AEK said that Macedonian Telecom officially reported to AEK that its 3G network will be shut down in December 2022 at the latest. Nevertheless, neither the institution nor the telecom operators discussed how the Chinese companies Huawei and ZTE landed the supply contract for setting up the networks.
Part of this equipment is still in use, and well-placed sources for Meta.mk reported that one of the two telecom operators will have to continue to use Chinese equipment for 3G and 4G networks for some time in 2023.
AEK 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 such agreements to AEK. We did not receive a direct answer to this question from Macedonian Telecom, while A1 Macedonia did not reply at all.
The US’s Clean Network and the technological battle abroad
According to the US State Department website, the program Clean Network is a comprehensive approach of the US administration to the protection of the nation’s property, including the private data of citizens and the intellectual property of businesses, from intrusions by malevolent players, such as the Chinese Communist Party.
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 August 5, 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 from making certain untrustworthy applications accessible by means such as reinstallation or otherwise.
The website of the US State Department even lists the countries that have signed on to the Clean Network, such as the United Kingdom, Sweden, Poland, Estonia, Greece, Latvia, Romania, and Denmark — and the list of signatories includes some of the biggest telecommunication companies worldwide.
Which technological company will provide the equipment for a 5G network has been a hot topic in the global media in the last two to three years. At the end of November 2022, the Federal Communications Commission of the United States banned imports and sales of new telecommunications equipment from Huawei and ZTE, due to concerns for US national security, the BBC reported.
Apart from these two Chinese companies, the ban of imports and sales also applies to Hikvision, Dahua and Hytera, all of which produce equipment for video surveillance and two-way radio systems.
On June 22, 2022, Reuters reported 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 that its telecommunications companies remove the telecommunications equipment purchased from Huawei and ZTE from the existing infrastructure in the country by January 1, 2025.
In 2022, Canada announced the ban of the Chinese companies Huawei and ZTE from possible cooperation on the 5G networks with Canadian telecoms, the BBC reported. 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, decisions prohibiting their participation in the construction of 5G networks had already been adopted in the US, the United Kingdom, Australia, and New Zealand. 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 2022, EUractiv wrote about the different policies of EU member states towards the suppliers of 5G telecommunication equipment. The fact that the rules around checking suppliers of equipment for 5G networks are not synchronized presents a security risk for the EU, stated the Report of the European Court of Auditors published on the January 24, 2022.
Back on Macedonian soil, the AEK informed Meta.mk that, so far, no instances of equipment being misused to violate the privacy of citizens or collect personal data have been registered in North Macedonia.
Public attention on 5G is diverted from consequences for personal data protection to conspiracy claims
For some years now, instead of discussing the hot topics of personal data protection and the privacy of citizens, along with national security issues from possible spying activities, the 5G topic in North Macedonia has been abused by conspiracy theorists. It was a subject of a disinformation wave about its alleged harmful effects on human health, with numerous instances of disinformation that have been going viral on social networks since 2019.
These anti-5G campaigns become widespread in 2020. Even though no 5G installations were active at the time in North Macedonia, social media groups and right-wing propaganda portals blamed them for non-existent death of birds.
In May 2020 such disinformation narratives were promoted via a protest that was organized in the front of the Macedonian government against the “fake COVID pandemic, the enforced vaccination and the installation of 5G antennas.” Research published in 2022 revealed its organizers as members of right-wing populist parties, in particular pro-Russian political party Rodina Makedonija.
Metamorphosis Foundation's Analysis of disinformation related to COVID-19 in North Macedonia showed that around 4 percent of fact-checks in 2020 dealt with 5G. However a regional public opinion survey published by the Balkans in Europe Policy Advisory Group (BiEPAG) in December of that year indicated that almost 30 percent of Macedonian respondents thought that the virus was connected to 5G-technology.
After telco companies commenced the actual installation of 5G facilities and started advertising related services, commercial media stopped publishing of articles promoting 5G conspiracy theories. However they persisted on social networks and fringe outlets.
During 2022 the Truthmeter.mk fact-checking service debunked a number of posts on Facebook profiles that spread the disinformation about 5G technology. These false claims range from population control via 5G-related microchips in vaccines, to alleged links between the SARS-COV2 virus and 5G networks, and that COVID-19 is a result of 5G radiation. Often repeated claims that 5G networks cause cancer were supplemented by bizarre claims in the USA now 5G antennas are camouflaged as cacti.
Despite the real concerns around privacy and espionage, and the often debunked viral concerns around 5G and health, the installation of a 5G network in North Macedonia continues without problems — for now.