Huawei’s latest US headache: Senate bill would spend US$1 billion on developing a 5G competitor

Mark Magnier

New legislation introduced in the US Senate on Tuesday aims to create a viable Western alternative to Huawei Technologies and undercut China’s dominance in global 5G networks.

One of the biggest problems in Washington’s bid to counter Chinese strength in 5G networks – the faster and higher capacity fifth generation of telecommunication systems – is the lack of global alternatives to Huawei.

The US does not now have a viable competitor, while Finland’s Nokia, Sweden’s Ericsson and even South Korea’s Samsung cannot match the complete technological package and attractive financing that Huawei offers.

The Senate bill tries to address that gap. If passed, it would spend more than US$1 billion to bolster Western competitiveness, allocate new spectrum and support research and development in the telecommunications industry.

“We are at a critical point in history for defining the future of the US-China relationship in the 21st century, and we cannot allow Chinese state-directed telecommunications companies to surpass American competitors,” said Senator Marco Rubio, Republican of Florida, a sponsor of the bill.

Senator Marco Rubio, a sponsor of the Utilising Strategic Allied Telecommunications Act: “We are at a critical point in history for defining the future of the US-China relationship in the 21st century.” Photo: AP
Senator Marco Rubio, a sponsor of the Utilising Strategic Allied Telecommunications Act: “We are at a critical point in history for defining the future of the US-China relationship in the 21st century.” Photo: AP

Rubio added that Washington’s efforts at convincing foreign allies to ban the Shenzhen-based Huawei from their networks have been encumbered by a lack of viable, affordable alternatives. Those, he said, were needed to counter “malign state-directed telecommunications companies that pose a clear and growing threat to the economic and national security of the US and our allies”.

Speaking in Silicon Valley a day earlier, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo echoed the senators’ contention that excluding Chinese carriers from 5G systems in the West was essential.

“China – specifically the Chinese Communist Party – presents unique challenges, especially to your industry,” Pompeo told the Silicon Valley Leadership Group, a civic group.

“We’re putting our allies and partners on notice about the massive security and privacy risks connected to letting Huawei construct their 5G networks inside of their countries.”

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in San Francisco on Monday. Photo: AFP
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in San Francisco on Monday. Photo: AFP

“This isn’t about selling American stuff. It’s not an American commercial effort. It’s a national security effort,” Pompeo added.

The bill is the latest pressure applied on Huawei by Washington. The Trump administration has blocked government agencies from using Huawei devices; added it to on an “entity list” of foreign companies banned from buying US technology; lobbied allies not to use Huawei equipment in their 5G networks; and pushed Canada to detain Meng Wanzhou, Huawei’s chief financial officer and the founder’s daughter, on charges she had violated sanctions against doing business with Iran.

And the administration is considering a rule change aimed at restricting sales to Huawei of non-sensitive items, such as standard mobile phone chips, made in third countries that rely on US technology, software, or components, Reuters reported.

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The six Democratic and Republican senators who introduced the bill – the Utilising Strategic Allied Telecommunications Act – underscore that moves aimed at challenging China enjoy broad bipartisan support in Washington these days.

The US and China, the world’s two largest economies, have hit the pause button on their 18-month trade war with Wednesday’s scheduled signing of a phase-one trade agreement. But US tariffs remain on US$250 billion worth of Chinese goods. And Washington’s suspicions towards Beijing has spread to the education, justice, investment and espionage sectors, among others.

Even so, while it is relatively easy to introduce a bill, even one with bipartisan support, it remains far more difficult to get it passed – particularly in the current environment.

At the best of times, only about 5 per cent of bills that are introduced become law. And these are not the best of times.

In addition to turf battles between the executive and legislative branches, the Senate is poised, ready or not, to consider the impeachment trial of US President Donald Trump, which could start as early as Thursday. Moreover, the political lines are drawing taut in advance of the presidential election in November.

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Huawei said the bill was misguided.

“Huawei has spent billions in 5G research, so it would be unfortunate to see such a waste of US taxpayer’s money to duplicate efforts when there are more cost effective ways to ensure the security of a network,” said Donald J. Morrissey, the company’s US director of government affairs.

A better approach, he added, “is to verify through testing, setting high global standards, and providing risk assurance and risk mitigation procedures and standards to ensure network security.”

The bill’s provisions include a requirement that the Federal Communications Commission spend at least US$750 million of the revenue it receives from auctioning new spectrum licenses to create a research and development fund. This would be used to spur innovation in open-architecture, software-based wireless technologies and the US mobile broadband market.

It also calls for creating a US$500 million fund in partnership with foreign allies to speed up adoption of “trusted and secure equipment globally” – backed up by required reports to Congress ensuring that progress is being made.

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The bill also calls for a blueprint on how small and rural telecoms companies – many of whom have purchased Huawei equipment in part because of its lower cost – can shift to open source, non-Chinese equipment. It would also push for stronger US leadership in international standards-setting bodies amid concern that Chinese companies will create and dominate the standards that govern the next generation of telecommunications technology.

Finally it would encourage suppliers to become larger and adopt common standards as a way to help drive down the cost of their products and offer a more attractive alternative to Huawei equipment.

“Every month that the US does nothing, Huawei stands poised to become the cheapest, fastest, most ubiquitous global provider of 5G, while US and Western companies and workers lose out on market share and jobs,” said co-sponsor Senator Mark Warner, a Virgina Democrat. “It is imperative that Congress address the complex security and competitiveness challenges that Chinese-directed telecommunication companies pose.”

Telecoms industry and national security groups said the bill was a step in the right direction. “This bill goes right to the core of the concerns of the US intelligence community, which is securing communications networks with US-allied intelligence services,” said Kyle Sullivan, the China practice lead at Crumpton Group, an intelligence-based business consultancy. “Providing an American alternative to Huawei would go a long way.”

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One telecoms executive, who asked not to be identified given his work with the US government, called the bill’s objectives a bit muddled.

While the sponsors speak repeatedly about excluding Huawei and creating an alternative, he noted, much of the funding appears aimed at bolstering open technical systems that allow easy connections among all carriers, presumably including Huawei as well as ZTE Corp, the Chinese telecoms equipment maker. “It’s a little obscure as to what they’re actually talking about developing,” he said.

But the bill focus on encouraging US software companies and allowing others to make hardware isn’t a bad strategy, he added. “This actually looks like a fairly interesting and realistic response,” the executive said. “This would appear to focus resources to capitalise on US core competencies. Which makes sense, because $1 billion isn’t going to somehow … create a box maker powerhouse in the US.”

Additional reporting by Reuters

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