Huawei’s US expansion hits another speed bump as Verizon bails out of smartphone deal

US security concerns continue to thwart the efforts of China’s largest telecommunications equipment maker to forge a smartphone distribution pact with a major American mobile network operator

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 30 January, 2018, 3:07pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 30 January, 2018, 11:55pm

American mobile network operator Verizon Communications has dropped all plans to sell smartphones by Huawei Technologies, including the new Mate 10 Pro, under pressure from the US government, according to people familiar with the matter.

The move follows AT&T’s decision earlier this month not to introduce the Mate 10 Pro to the US market.

Devices from Huawei still work on the networks of both Verizon and AT&T but direct sales would have allowed China’s largest smartphone supplier to reach more consumers than it can through third-party distributors.

The US government’s renewed concern about Chinese spying is creating a potential roadblock in the race between Verizon and AT&T to offer 5G, the next generation of super-fast mobile service.

Huawei is pushing to be among the first to offer a 5G-capable smartphone, but the device may be considered off-limits to US carriers which are preparing to offer the next-generation mobile service in a few cities later this year.

5G networks are expected to be used in everything from mobile communications to self-driving cars and artificial intelligence.

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US security agencies and some lawmakers fear that 5G smartphones made by companies that may have close ties to the Chinese government could pose a security risk.

The perceived threat has prompted the Trump administration to consider plans to not just keep Chinese equipment off US telecommunications networks, but also to nationalise the construction of a 5G system like the US did with interstate motorways in the 1950s. The idea was roundly blasted by industry leaders and lawmakers from both parties on Monday.

“Your phone is the ultimate Trojan horse,” said Roger Entner, an analyst with Recon Analytics. “If someone has control of your phone, they can do a lot with it. In a nightmare scenario, they can turn on the microphone or the camera and – if you’re working for a defence contractor or chip maker – they can obtain sensitive information.”

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Both Huawei and Verizon declined to comment.

Smartphones are just the latest lightning rod for a much broader conflict between the US and China that dates back more than a decade.

Huawei came under US scrutiny in 2003, when Cisco Systems sued its China-based rival, accusing it of stealing software code for its network routers. Huawei denied the charges and pulled some products. Shenzhen-based Huawei, however, went on to dominate networking gear sales in China and is now the world’s top telecommunications equipment supplier, even though it has made nearly zero inroads in the US.

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The incident fed perceptions that companies in China have certain advantages over the US because of government support, cheap labour and a loose regard for intellectual-property rights. Huawei has spent the past decade fighting those perceptions in an effort to gain access to US market.

Huawei makes both handsets and network equipment. No major American carrier uses equipment from Huawei or another Chinese manufacturer, ZTE Corp, in its network.

But Verizon, AT&T and smaller carriers T-Mobile and Sprint Corp all have been selling smartphones from the two suppliers in the US for several years.

ZTE plans to introduce a 5G-capable device in the US at year-end or in early 2019, said Cheng Lixin, the chief executive of the company’s mobile-device business, earlier this month. Thus far, ZTE has not met the same level of resistance from the US government as Huawei has.

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AT&T’s decision not to carry the Mate 10 Pro came amid political pressure and just weeks after regulators received a letter urging an investigation into China-made equipment. The Mate 10 Pro, which is aimed at being a direct rival to the high-end smartphones from Apple and Samsung Electronics, is expected to have 5G versions available by 2019, according to a person familiar with the plans.

Huawei, China’s largest manufacturer of telecommunications equipment, was founded in 1988 by former Chinese army officer Ren Zhengfei. Speaking at the CES trade show earlier this month, Richard Yu Chengdong, Huawei’s consumer products chief, defended his company’s record.

“We serve 170 countries, and for 30 years we’ve proven our quality and we’ve proven our privacy and security protection,” Yu said.

Trump’s national security team looked for ways to to accelerate the deployment of American 5G networks, “apparently concluding that the current deployment plans are too slow and too limited for national security purposes,” Blair Levin, a policy adviser to New Street Research, wrote in a research note.

White House Press Secretary Sarah Sanders said at Monday’s briefing that discussions about a national 5G network are at an early stage and that no decision has been reached.

The plan’s chances of success are “are significantly below 50 per cent”, in part because of industry opposition, Levin said.

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Any such national effort would make US 5G leadership not just an economic goal, but also a national security objective, creating “a potentially powerful new dimension to the 5G debate, perhaps with unforeseen consequences”, said Paul Gallant, a Washington-based analyst with Cowen & Co. Carriers may need to reshape their message to show how they support national security, Gallant said.

US lawmakers in December asked Federal Communications Commission (FCC) chairman Ajit Pai to begin an investigation of Huawei’s plans to sell consumer gear in the US, according to text of a congressional letter obtained by Bloomberg.

The text cited concerns from intelligence committees in Congress, and did not list which lawmakers signed the letter. Tina Pelkey, an FCC spokeswoman, declined to comment on whether such an inquiry had begun.

We serve 170 countries, and for 30 years we’ve proven our quality and we’ve proven our privacy and security protection.
Richard Yu Chengdong, chief executive of Huawei’s consumer business group

In 2012, Huawei and ZTE landed on a blacklist. The House Intelligence Committee urged US companies to steer clear of the Chinese manufacturers on concerns that the government in Beijing could install malicious hardware or software. Huawei suffered one of its biggest setbacks when it was the subject of two policy-recommendation letters that labelled the company a spy threat. The charges cost Huawei a contract to sell equipment to Sprint.

Since then, the spying accusations have continued from both sides.

In 2013, as the US was raising concerns about possible China-sponsored cyber-espionage, National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden leaked information about the US government’s own campaign. The Snowden leak pointed to spy work the US was doing on Huawei and surveillance on foreign citizens.

In the wake of Snowden’s revelations, Cisco came under fire from state-run media outlets when its internet equipment in China was singled out as a potential security threat. An editorial in the Global Times newspaper urged Chinese companies to buy from domestic technology companies.