Telecoms engineers

5G rollout hampered as tech giants limit employee access to Huawei

Image credit: Eakkachai Nimaphan | Dreamstime.com

Employees at some of the world's leading technology companies have been instructed by bosses to stop talking to their counterparts at Huawei, as a result of the recent White House blacklisting of the Chinese tech firm.

According to information shared by sources with Reuters, chip-makers Intel and Qualcomm, mobile research firm InterDigital Wireless Inc and South Korean carrier LG Uplus have all restricted their employees from informal conversations with Huawei, currently the world's largest telecommunications equipment maker.

Such discussions have typically been a routine part of international meetings in the past, where engineers gather to set technical standards for communications technologies, including the next generation of mobile networks known as 5G.

The US Department of Commerce has not itself banned contact between these companies and Huawei. Following its May 16 blacklisting, barring Huawei from doing business with US companies without government approval, the agency subsequently authorised US companies to interact with Huawei in standards bodies until August 2019 "as necessary for the development of 5G standards". The Commerce Department reiterated its position on Friday when questioned by Reuters.

Despite this government-level latitude, some major US and overseas technology companies have taken it upon themselves to deter their employees from direct interaction with Huawei, the sources confirmed, as the companies strive to avoid any potential clash with the Trump administration.

Intel and Qualcomm confirmed that they have provided compliance instructions to employees, but declined to comment on them further.

A spokesman for InterDigital said it has provided guidance to engineers to ensure the company is in compliance with US regulations.

An official with LG Uplus said the company is "voluntarily refraining from interacting with Huawei workers, other than meeting for network equipment installation or maintenance issues." No formal policy is in place, LG Uplus said.

These new inhibitions on professional relationships and conversations could handicap the rollout of 5G. 5G is the latest generation of mobile network technology, which follows 4G. 5G uses shorter-range, higher-frequency millimetre waves to transmit information at speeds up to 100 times faster than 4G. The new standard is expected to be used to transmit high volumes of data between connected devices such as driverless cars and other IoT devices, as well as increasing speeds for mobile devices.

Last week, at a 5G standards meeting in Newport Beach, California, participants privately expressed their alarm to Reuters that the long-standing cooperation amongst engineers worldwide – which has always been necessary for phones and networks to connect globally - could fall victim to what one participant described as a "tech war" between the United States and China.

A representative of a European company that has instituted rules against interaction with Huawei described people involved in 5G development as "shaken". "This could push everyone to their own corners and we need cooperation to get to 5G. It should be a global market," the person, who wished to remain anonymous, said.

Huawei is increasingly being viewed as a central figure in the trade war between the US and China. The US alleges that so-called ‘back doors’ in Huawei equipment could be used by China to spy on crucial US networks – particularly the country’s nascent 5G network – despite the US itself having widely used Huawei equipment in government locations for years prior to 2018. Huawei has consistently denied that it could be compromised by the Chinese government, military or intelligence services.

Historically, China, the US and European companies have failed to agree on standards for Wi-Fi, cellular networks and other technologies. It was hoped that closer agreement and cooperation would come together for 5G , but the continuing tension between Beijing and Washington seems likely to damn any such aspirations.

Huawei remains a major influence at global organisations responsible for agreeing upon technical specifications for networks. It is also one of the world's biggest manufacturers of the hardware necessary for the vital parts of networks, such as routers and switches, as well as consumer devices that run on the networks, such as smartphones and tablets. Huawei will thus need to be allowed a seat at the standards-setting table, as 5G networks spread, regardless of any political situation.

That has become increasingly complex. The Wall Street Journal reported recently that Russell Vought, the acting director of the White House's Office of Management and Budget, had asked vice president Mike Pence and nine members of Congress by letter for a delay in the implementation of the law that restricts government business with Huawei. Vought's letter laid out the case that the 'National Defense Authorization Act', which US President Donald Trump signed into law last year, could prompt a "dramatic reduction" in the number of companies able to work with the government. In turn, this could impact internet services to rural areas already struggling to keep network pace with urban centres.

Meanwhile, the New York Times revealed that Microsoft, Dell and other major tech companies have been warned at meetings with Chinese government representatives that they will face serious consequences if they cooperate with the US ban on technology sales to Chinese companies. Officials from the Chinese National Development and Reform Commission held the meetings last week, also attended by officials from the Ministry of Commerce and Ministry of Industry and Information Technology, according to sources familiar with the matter.

The rollout of 5G has already begun in some countries. In the UK, EE launched its 5G network to the public in six UK cities at the end of May, ahead of a wider rollout across the country. EE launched its 5G network for public use in some parts of London, Birmingham, Manchester, Cardiff, Belfast and Edinburgh. It plans to follow this soft launch with 1,500 sites by the end of the year, including the busiest parts of Liverpool, Newcastle, Bristol, Glasgow, Coventry, Hull, Sheffield, Nottingham and Leicester. While rolling out 5G, it will also convert 500 3G mobile towers to output 4G signals to help boost speeds in more rural areas.

In May 2019, culture secretary Jeremy Wright said the UK Government is still making up its mind as to whether to allow Huawei to make parts of the UK’s nascent 5G networks. For its part, Huawei has said it is willing to sign a ‘no spying’ agreement with countries including the UK in order to ease concerns about its technology, as confirmed by company chairman Dr Liang Hua during his recent visit to the UK.

The US blacklisting of Huawei has affected companies of all sizes, including those based outside the US but which have a significant technological involvement in the US, such as UK-based ARM. In the US, Google has been pulled into the heart of the conflict, announcing that Huawei (and any of its sub-brands) would not be able to use forthcoming versions of the Android mobile OS. This seismic industry tremor has largely overshadowed recent Huawei product launches, such as the recent UK launch of the latest handsets by Huawei sub-brand Honor. The company pointedly made no reference to the Android issue at the launch event.

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