As 5G mobile networks go live around the world, the new technology is predicted to change the way users live and is slated to be used in a myriad of interconnected devices in homes, infrastructure, factories, and offices – dubbed the “internet of things”.
And yet, security questions continue to make European governments pause. 5G’s vast potential use makes safety and control a more critical factor than previously considered. Allegations that China has built “back doors” in its technology to enable spying is the stuff of security nightmares, and tangles up the long-anticipated, extensive roll-out of the new mobile technology.
Deutsche Telekom, Europe’s largest telecommunications company, has put all deals to buy 5G network equipment from Huawei on hold, pending Germany’s final decision on whether to bar the Chinese company, after Chancellor Angela Merkel’s coalition called for its ban due to security concerns. Huawei is a major vendor of mobile networks across Europe, and accounts for more than the 70 percent of existing mobile networks in Germany alone. An injunction could have major and immediate repercussions on existing European telecommunications.
In the United States, a 23 billion euro deal that would merge Deutsche Telekom’s T-Mobile unit and Sprint also potentially stands to be derailed, as a number of states have banded together to sue and block the merger. The US imposed an export ban on Huawei in May of last year, and has called others to join the boycott, stating that the gear being sold was insecure and led directly back to Beijing.
Huawei has denied all accusations, but making new business deals with China would undermine the potential merger on the line in the USA – a priority for Deutsche Telekom. “In light of the unclear political situation, we are not currently entering into any 5G contracts – with any vendor”, Deutsche Telekom said to Reuters. “We are currently informing vendors of this”.
Meanwhile, Merkel has backed a new regulatory framework that would subject technology offered by all vendors to scrutiny, as opposed to barring any one provider. Though this is expected to cut into Huawei’s share of the European market, it stands to benefit companies such as Nokia and Ericsson. In agreement are Merkel’s junior coalition allies, the Social Democrats. Moreover, Foreign Minister Heiko Maas has proposed legislation to create a “politically legitimated body” to oversee 5G security.
Huawei finds itself eager to play ball, and founder Ren Zhengfei is keen on opening a new factory in Europe in an effort to put any security fears to rest. The company will have to move fast, however, as 5G has already been launched by Deutsche Telekom in a handful of cities with Huawei technology, beginning with the pilot programme in Berlin. “We hope that we will get political clarity for Germany’s 5G buildout as soon as possible so that we do not fall behind”, Deutsche Telekom said.
Italy Urges Caution
An Italian parliamentary security committee has recommended caution, stating that Italy should consider preventing Chinese telecoms firms from participating in the development of 5G networks. The committee also recommended that the Italian government implement additional measures to protect the existing, domestic 5G network from companies with links to foreign governments – including Huawei and ZTE.
The committee was formed in October after the government passed legislation that gave parliament special vetting powers over 5G supply deals between domestic firms and non-EU providers, fuelled by concerns over potential security risks.
“The committee cannot help but consider that the concerns about the involvement of Chinese companies in the installation, configuration and maintenance of 5G network infrastructure are to a large extent founded”, read the statement submitted to parliament.
In response, Huawei has said they are open to cooperating with Italian government bodies and willing to provide the guarantees needed to allow rapid roll-out of the new networks. ZTE did not respond to allegations directly, but a spokesman has said the company will provide any information necessary to the security committee.
In contradiction, Italian Industry Minister Stefano Patuanelli, part of the ruling 5-Star Movement, insists that Huawei should take a role in Italy’s 5G roll-out. “We have passed legislation that guarantees national security. With the right defences, the possibility of (Huawei’s) access is not up for debate“, he told newspaper La Stampa. Patuanelli also noted that Huawei was the best deal on the market, saying “Huawei offers the best solutions at the best prices…One cannot fly the flag of the market with one hand and that of protectionism with the other”.
“These Fears Are Unfounded”
Not everyone subscribes to German, Italian, and American fears about Huawei. Chief Executive Stéphane Richard of France’s leading telecoms operator, Orange, said “This myth that (amounts to saying): I’ve got a China-made antenna, so it must have a microphone that allows all my conservations to be listened to by the Chinese communist party is complete nonsense. It hasn’t been established anywhere”.
France’s telecom regulator, Arcep, has moved forward with the procedure for assigning 5G frequency licenses to Orange and other local rivals such as Altice Europe’s SFR, Bouygues Telecom, and Iliad.
But a recent decree for screening equipment to prevent espionage has not offered clarity to French telecom lobby, the FTT, which has demanded clear guarantees on the issue. “We solemnly ask you to postpone the launch of tenders for 5G frequencies until this situation regarding equipment manufacturers…has been clarified”, said the FFT president, Arthur Dreyfuss.
SFR and Bouygues Telecom are the biggest users of the Chinese technology in France, while Orange makes use of it in other major European markets, like Spain and Poland, and further abroad in Africa. If uncertainty about Huawei is not resolved, roll-out of these frequencies could be majorly affected.
Similarly, Portugal is also hesitant to bar Huawei tech from its 5G infrastructure. As one of the EU’s smaller members, the country is keen to attract investors and Chinese companies have a major stock in Portuguese energy, banking, and insurance sectors.
Huawei isn’t calling it quits just yet. Though locked out of the US market at the moment, the company seeks to win over the EU by focusing on shared values.
When asked directly if his company’s equipment could be used for espionage, Abraham Liu, the company’s top official in Europe, affirmed that Huawei is completely independent and spying for China “would be like committing suicide”. Liu added that “Europe’s values of openness, innovation and the rule of law have led to it being a powerhouse in mobile communications — and Huawei shares these values”.
To double down on the image that that they are transparent and trustworthy partners, the company organised public debates with members of the EU Parliament and then posted the video online. Exploiting European distrust towards the American leadership – spending millions in ads and lobbying – also appears to be working in their favour. Playing up United States President Trump’s unreliability in comparison to Huawei’s stance as a guarantor of privacy, transparency, and globalisation is finding willing ears in Brussels.
Liu insists that his company’s continued presence in Europe is indicative of the US’s failure to demonstrate concrete evidence of wrongdoing by Huawei. “It’s not fair on us as a private company to face such a challenge from a superpower”, he said. “And for Europe, we appreciate that the European stakeholders take a different approach”.
“The Chinese have started brazenly claiming that it is China, not the United States, that shares more values with Europe”, said Julianne Smith of the German Marshall Fund in Washington. “Chinese scholars and officials also frequently remind European audiences that unlike the United States, China believes in climate change and multilateralism, a message that is especially powerful in a place like Germany”.
Meanwhile, Huawei has succeeded in selling equipment across Europe – Hungary’s premier, Viktor Orban, has announced that Huawei would lead its 5G roll-out. Other European leaders, such as UK premier Boris Johnson, remain non-committal.
Still, some continue to be suspicious. “No Chinese company is an independent company”, said Norbert Röttgen, a former German government minister from Merkel’s party, adding that Huawei’s involvement was “an imminent question of national security”.
No Clear Paths Forward
The EU finds itself caught between China and the USA in a political and technological football match. Bloc rules make it difficult to target individual companies, though stringent standards of conduct and openness may be imposed. So far, the EU has left it up to each of their member states to proceed how it sees fit. However, this past December the European Union agreed with the US that its member states should adopt a “comprehensive and risk-based” approach, including the use of only trustworthy parties for components critical to national security.
A key issue for both European and US officials is a 2017 Chinese regulation that mandates any organisation and citizen support and assist national intelligence in their investigations. This law is why some believe Huawei could be compelled to build in espionage-friendly “back doors” into their technology. The US has argued that the EU and other American allies should therefore only purchase equipment from countries that have independent court systems. Rob Strayer, the US State Department’s deputy assistant secretary for cyber, has said the goal isn’t to ban a specific company, but rather for aligned nations to adopt a common security standard – one that Huawei doesn’t meet.
“We’ve said for some time that we want to maintain our very close cooperation on law enforcement and military matters with governments around the world”, said Strayer in an interview with Bloomberg TV. “But when we’re not able to share information securely, as would be the case when they have untrusted vendors in their 5G networks, we’re going to have to reassess how we share that information in the future”.
While concern for security is a major factor, there is also the question of Trump using it as a bargaining chip in the ongoing trade war with China. If a deal is reached, will that leave Europe holding the bag?
“There is a fear that if you take what potentially are quite expensive decisions with regards to 5G because the Americans have told you that they are a security problem, and then President Trump gets a trade deal with China and suddenly Huawei is all OK again, then you’ll feel like the earth has moved under your feet”, said Ian Bond, director of foreign policy at the Centre for European Reform, a policy group in London.