US’s attempts to decrease Chinese influence on 5G

TechRadar | February 18, 2020

  • The U.S. is begging its allies to not include Huawei products in their 5G networks.

  • Telecoms operators can obviously turn to Nokia and/or Ericsson instead, but things aren’t quite that simple.

  • The technologies held by Microsoft, Dell, and AT&T are useful for computing applications but they don’t have the expertise in radio technology.


In an effort to cut down the dominance of Huawei Technologies Co., the White House is said to be working with U.S. technology companies and create advanced software for next-generation 5G telecommunications networks.
 

The United States has finally specified its accusation against Huawei, saying that the Chinese telecoms equipment firm maintains spying access to the traffic flowing through its products.
 

Governments around the world say telecoms equipment has to include this access, for the benefit of their law enforcement and intelligence agencies—in the U.S., the relevant law is called the Communications Assistance for Law Enforcement Act, or CALEA. But the makers of the equipment are not supposed to be able to poke around—accessing data such as what people are looking at online, and their emails and text messages—without permission from the operators that are their customers.
 

According to a Tuesday article in the Wall Street Journal, Huawei secretly maintains that access, and that is why the U.S. is begging its allies to not include Huawei products in their 5G networks—networks that will connect not just people but billions of cars, buildings, and devices, providing exciting new avenues for espionage and sabotage.
 

“The big-picture concept is to have all of the U.S. 5G architecture and infrastructure done by American firms, principally. That also could include Nokia and Ericsson because they have big U.S. presences.”

-Larry Kudlow, White House Economic Adviser


Britain has already called the Trump administration’s bluff, betting that officials would back away from their threat to cut off intelligence sharing with any country that used Huawei equipment in its network. Apart from an angry phone call between President Trump and Prime Minister Boris Johnson, Britain appears to be paying no price for its decision to let Huawei into limited parts of its network, under what the British say will be rigorous surveillance.

 

Germany now appears ready to follow a similar path, despite an endless stream of cajoling and threats by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, Defense Secretary Mark T. Esper and other U.S. officials at a global security conference in Munich last weekend.
 

Learn more: THE US IS MAKING ITS OWN 5G TECHNOLOGY WITH AMERICAN AND EUROPEAN COMPANIES, AND WITHOUT HUAWEI
 

In public speeches and private conversations, Mr. Pompeo and Mr. Esper continued to hammer home the dangers of letting a Chinese firm into networks that control critical communications, saying it would give the Chinese government the ability to spy on — or, in times of conflict, turn off — those networks. The security risks are so severe, they warned, that the United States would no longer be able to share intelligence with any country whose network uses Huawei.
 

“If countries choose to go the Huawei route, it could well jeopardize all the information sharing and intelligence sharing we have been talking about, and that could undermine the alliance, or at least our relationship with that country.”

-Mark T. Esper, U.S. Defense Secretary


The Huawei fight is just one part of a bigger U.S.-China battle, as Washington tries to contain Beijing’s influence and power and ensure that the world’s second-largest economy does not come to dominate advanced industries that could give it an economic and military edge. That includes the next-generation telecommunications networks that Huawei is building, known as 5G. Those superfast networks will control communications, critical infrastructure and, most worrying for American officials, the “internet of things” devices that are already controlling factories, autonomous vehicles and the day-to-day operations of military bases.

 

Learn more: REBUFFED BY UK, U.S. PITCHES 'BIG TENT' FOR HUAWEI RIVALS IN EUROPE
 

Huawei is the world’s leading supplier of 5G telecoms equipment. Its prices are lower than those of main rivals Nokia and Ericsson, thanks largely to cash flowing in from Chinese state support, plus the economies of scale that result from the country’s hyperactive 5G network rollout.
 

Telecoms operators can obviously turn to Nokia and/or Ericsson instead, but things aren’t quite that simple. Operators want multiple vendors’ equipment in their networks for flexibility, and they don’t want to pay any more than they have to, says Ian Fogg, an industry veteran who heads up the team of analysts at mobile analytics firm Opensignal.
 

Nokia and Ericsson aside, these may not be the most obvious players to take on Huawei. “The technologies held by Microsoft, Dell, and AT&T are useful for computing applications, but they don’t have the expertise in radio technology to achieve the high level of performance needed in the market,” says Joe Madden, president of the Californian analyst house Mobile Experts.
 

But there may still be something to the idea—though it probably won’t be to the liking of Nokia and Ericsson.
Nokia and Ericsson already operate in the U.K. The other two players worth mentioning are ZTE—a non-starter, given that ZTE is Chinese and potentially also poses risks—and the South Korean electronics giant Samsung.
 

Samsung has made some gains in the U.S. and South Korean 5G network markets, and also recently inked a deal with Canada’s Videotron, but it’s still relatively young in the space.
 

Last week, U.S. Attorney General William Barr expressed enthusiasm for the idea of the U.S. directly or indirectly (via a “consortium of private American and allied companies”) taking a controlling stake in Nokia or Ericsson, which he described as the “only two companies that can compete with Huawei right now as 5G infrastructure suppliers.”

“Putting our large market and financial muscle behind one or both of these firms would make it a more formidable competitor and eliminate concerns over its staying power,” Barr said. “We and our closest allies certainly need to be actively considering this approach… What we need today is a product that can win contracts right now.”
 

There are two big problems with this approach. First, as Fogg notes: “It’s not clear that ownership change will enhance the competitiveness of a company like Nokia or Ericsson. They want to be successful vendors in the mobile industry—they’re already going hell-for-leather to do that. Change of ownership could just be another distraction.”
 

Secondly, the Europeans would be displeased at the idea of one of their prize telecoms firms—Nokia is Finnish and Ericsson Swedish—being bought out by the Americans.
 

In a position paper approved Tuesday by Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrats and one of its coalition partners, the Christian Social Union, the conservative parties not only rejected the idea of a U.S.-pleasing ban on Huawei’s participation in German 5G networks, but also called for a common European industrial strategy that would push back against hostile foreign takeovers of 5G-critical European companies.
 

The fight over Huawei has put many European countries in a no-win position, forcing them to either rebuff a key intelligence ally’s warnings and risk their key alliance, or alienate China, a critical trading partner. Further complicating the decision is the lack of definitive U.S. intelligence showing that Huawei has ever gained access to data that flows across its networks during the two decades it has provided telecommunications equipment to Europe.

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