China’s Huawei is falling behind in the race to supply telecommunications equipment for 5G networks in Europe, its largest market outside of its home turf.

As Sweden decided in October to exclude Huawei from its next-generation mobile networks, seven out of 27 European Union member states have made moves to heavily restrict the Shenzhen company’s participation in the buildout of 5G. The list includes heavyweights like France and the UK. 

Among countries that have not made decisions on Huawei, six have signed a declaration of intent to keep their networks “clean” of Chinese technology under the US “Clean Network” initiative. Signing the Clean Network initiative does not appear to bind countries to bar Huawei gear. 

While regulators are driving the shift against Huawei, telcos are jumping the gun. In another five countries, telco operators have signed contracts to procure 5G equipment from Huawei’s competitors, Nokia and Ericsson, likely anticipating regulation.

(Image credit: TechNode/Wei Sheng)

Experts say that the Shenzhen-based company may eventually face de facto expulsion from Europe’s 5G networks as countries move to make their final decisions.

Huawei supplied around 50% of the equipment for Europe’s 4G networks, according to a 2017 report by the European Trade Union Institute, an EU-backed research center. However, the company now faces a much less welcoming environment for 5G—at least two countries have banned its gear outright, and a dozen others are considering heavy restrictions.

“Chinese vendors will play a minuscule role in parts of Europe’s mobile networks that are considered sensitive or critical,” Jan-Peter Kleinhans, director of the project Geopolitics & Technology at German think tank Stiftung Neue Verantwortung told TechNode. 

Kleinhans said that he could imagine a full exclusion of Huawei equipment from Europe’s 5G core networks “in the long run.” 

“Since the European Union put the onus on member states to objectively assess risks and adopt mitigating measures to ensure the security of 5G rollouts, most countries have increased their scrutiny of Huawei,” Jan Stryjak, associate director at market research firm Counterpoint, told TechNode. “Since no country would want to be alone in bucking the trend, solidarity seems to be the name of the game.”

European countries so far haven’t banned Huawei from all of their 5G core networks, a Huawei spokesperson told TechNode on Friday. “Huawei calls and pushes for the establishment of network security standards, and hopes all vendors to be subject to the same scrutiny.”

The company said its commitment towards the European market is “unchanged.”

The EU toolbox

The first step towards an EU-wide policy on 5G security came in January, when the EU Commission released the so-called EU 5G toolbox: A blueprint for how the 27 member states should evaluate 5G gear provider risks and trustworthiness. 

The toolbox requires member states to assess supplier risk profiles on a national or EU level and apply restrictions on those deemed high-risk. 

“The EU toolbox recommends a set of key measures that should be taken by all member states and by the Commission. These measures will apply to everybody, without targeting any actor or country in particular,” Marietta Grammenou, a European Commission spokesperson, told TechNode in an email. 

The toolbox does not mention Huawei or China by name, but instructs national regulators to consider the “risk of interference by non-EU state or state-backed actors,” echoing US rhetoric. 

Some countries have taken a middle-of-the-road approach: They have chosen to raise security requirements for all vendors in a way that amounts to a ban on Huawei without naming it.

The EU toolbox was rolled out after the US government embarked on a campaign to pressure allies into excluding Huawei equipment from their 5G networks, and marked a sharp shift from earlier guidance in EU security directives, where country of origin did not feature prominently as a concern. 

Scholars have said that Huawei is owned and controlled by the Chinese state but the company maintains that it is a private company 100% owned by its employees.

The toolbox leaves the decision to ban Huawei up to member states: “While everyone who complies with our rules can access the European market, member states have the right to decide whether to exclude companies from their markets for national security reasons,” Grammenou said.

“Since mobile networks are considered a critical infrastructure with a direct impact on national security, member states are free to develop their own strategy and thus balance between costs and security,” Kleinhans said.

As countries set their own paths, a likely result is “a highly fragmented regulatory landscape,” Kleinhans said.

Security concerns

As more regulators and telecommunication operators put limits on Huawei, it’s getting more tempting to jump on the bandwagon. Europe’s military and intelligence community, meanwhile, has been voicing objections to Huawei gear, citing national security concerns.

“With no country wanting to be the odd one out, it wouldn’t be surprising if all member states follow the same trend,” Stryjak said.

While only two countries have specifically banned Huawei from future network buildouts, lawmakers and politicians are signaling that other European countries will likely follow their example or heavily restrict the company’s involvement. 

In July, the UK banned Huawei from its 5G networks and ordered its telecommunication operators to remove existing Huawei gear from their networks by 2027, citing a US ban on the company in May that could cut the company off from the global semiconductor supply chain. 

In a similar move, a Swedish telecom regulator said in October that potential grantees of the country’s 5G spectrum must not use products from Huawei in new core networks and existing Huawei gear must be phased out before 2025.

Sweden’s Huawei decision was made based on assessments by the country’s Armed Forces and the Security Service, the Swedish Post and Telecom Authority (PTS) said. On the announcement of the Huawei ban, Klas Friberg, head of the Swedish Security Service, said “China is one of the biggest threats to Sweden.” The country, Friberg added, must not forget when constructing its 5G network that China “is conducting cyber espionage to promote its own economic development and develop its military capabilities.”

Europe’s biggest economies and political epicenters, including Germany and France, have also indicated that they are turning against Huawei.

In October 2019, Germany’s spy chief Bruno Kahl said Huawei “can’t fully be trusted” to participate in the country’s 5G network rollout. While German Chancellor Angela Merkel was in September reportedly vehemently opposed to any restrictions that would single out Huawei, she faced a contingent of politicians who sought to effectively ban Huawei from German 5G networks. Later in the month, they appeared to have won.

In July, Reuters reported that the French National Cybersecurity Authority (ANSSI) had granted licenses to some operators that use Huawei gear. But the bulk of the authorizations were for three or five years, whereas most applications for 5G kit from European rivals Ericsson or Nokia received eight-year licenses.

Notably, the ANSSI informed operators during informal conversations, not stated formally in documents, that licenses granted for Huawei equipment would not be renewed once expired, according to the report.

The Huawei issue has been a flash point in escalating tensions between China and the US. For more than a year, the US government has continued to pressure its allies to exclude Huawei equipment. Not doing so, it said, poses the potential risk of Beijing using vulnerabilities in the company’s gear to spy on foreign 5G networks, an allegation Huawei has repeatedly denied. 

A full ban on Huawei equipment would almost certainly be seen by Beijing as choosing sides, and fodder for retaliation. 

Most recently, a UK oversight body said in October that Huawei had failed to adequately solve security flaws including a “vulnerability of national significance” in gear used in the country’s telecom networks despite previous warnings. 

In April 2019, Vodafone told Bloomberg that it found “hidden backdoors” in the software that could have given Huawei unauthorized access to the carrier’s system providing internet service in Italy. The carrier said at the time that the issues had been resolved after it asked Huawei to remove them.

‘A matter of time’

Huawei has not disclosed how much revenue it earns from Europe. According to the company’s annual results, it generated RMB 206 billion (around $31.1 billion) from Europe, the Middle East, and Africa in 2019, or around 24% of its total revenue for the year.

Stryjak of Counterpoint said that there could still be a play for Huawei in the radio access network (RAN) market, the less sensitive area of 5G networks that connect end devices to core networks. However, he said, Huawei’s RAN business in the continent is still subject to the “suspicion that governments and operators now hold.”

“It seems only a matter of time before all of Europe’s core 5G networks are Huawei-free,” Stryjak said.

Eliza was TechNode's blockchain and fintech reporter until July 2021, when she moved to CoinDesk to cover crypto in Asia. Get in touch with her via email or Twitter.