Huawei or the highway


Huawei has held a spot in the headlines recently for a number of reasons, but you may be asking, what is Huawei (pronounced “Wah-Way”) and why is it of interest?

The Chinese telecommunications company was founded in 1987 and began by developing equipment for mobile phone networks. Since then it has evolved and grown into a much larger entity. Overtaking companies like Nokia and Ericsson, Huawei has become a global leader in its field. Most recently, they’ve ventured into making smartphones and in doing so have secured around 15% of the market. To put that in context, that’s more than Apple, and second only to telecoms giant Samsung.

This may sound normal enough. Even given the fact that the founder’s daughter has recently been arrested in Canada for extradition to the United States, the story of the company itself and its trajectory sounds like nothing to be concerned about. Why, then, are some Western governments blocking telecoms companies from using Huawei technology in their new communication networks due to “security concerns”?

It all links back to the company’s founder, Ren Zhengfei, a former officer of the People’s Liberation Army. The United States are pointing at Ren’s background and suggesting that in combination with Huawei’s growing global role, the company may present a risk to national security. In theory, having control of Huawei’s vast communications network carries with it the potential for espionage and the disruption of communications. As more things like domestic appliances and autonomous vehicles become connected to the Internet, this becomes a larger concern. In addition, China’s National Intelligence Law, which passed in 2017, dictates that Chinese organisations “must support, co-operate and collaborate in national intelligence work.” All of these factors combined have been deemed enough for the US, Australia and New Zealand to block all local firms from using Huawei to provide the technology for upcoming 5G mobile networks.

The UK government, however, has not made any such block as yet. With Brexit on the horizon, and a strong relationship with China on trade and investment important, a move of a similar nature may be less likely to appear here. Nonetheless, the government has admitted that there have been “strains” in their relationship with Huawei. Alex Younger, the head of MI6, has stated that decisions need to be made over the Chinese giant’s role moving forward, as 5G networks will make security harder to monitor. The majority of the UK’s mobile networks – EE, Three and Vodafone are already working with Huawei to prepare their 5G offerings, which would not be easy to reverse, should they want to. BT, however, has announced it will not use Huawei’s technology in central parts of its 5G network.

Huawei themselves are quick to dismiss concerns saying that they “prioritise safety and security when supplying technology”, putting the hostility down to the fact that they pose a competitive threat. With 5G networks soon to be introduced in several countries, there are big contracts at stake; as Emily Taylor of Chatham House stated to the BBC: “I think the trade advantage from setting standards that favour your own domestic suppliers’ technologies plays a part in this.”