Huawei trade ban to test China’s 5G roll-out as Beijing set to issue commercial licences

Huawei trade ban to test China’s 5G roll-out as Beijing set to issue commercial licences
China’s Ministry of Industry and Information Technology (MIIT) said it will issue licences for commercial 5G mobile services “in the near future”, as the country attempts to move ahead in the global race to roll out ultra-fast, next-generation telecommunications networks that will help power the industrial internet, autonomous driving and smart cities.

But a US blacklisting of Huawei Technologies, the global leader in 5G telecoms network equipment, raises concerns about the ability of China to stick to its plan for a speedy roll-out.

The stakes have become higher for China after the US government put Huawei on its Entity List, which identifies organisations and individuals believed to be involved, or pose a significant risk of becoming involved, in activities contrary to America’s national security or foreign policy interests
. That has cut off Huawei’s access to US semiconductor suppliers, such as Qualcomm, and software providers like Google and Microsoft.

“Even if [commercial] 5G licences are issued in China, I don’t see how the country’s telecoms network operators could build out in a big scale without Huawei,” Jefferies equity analyst Edison Lee said.

The MIIT did not provide a clear timeline for issuing the commercial 5G licences to the country’s three wireless network operators – China Mobile, China Unicom and China Telecom – which have combined 4G subscribers of more than 1.2 billion as of April 30

Instead, the industry regulator said in a statement that 5G was entering a critical period of commercial deployment around the world and that China has a competitive advantage in the new mobile technology, holding more than 30 per cent of essential patents.

“The MIIT will issue 5G commercial licences soon, and China will officially enter the first year of 5G,” the statement said.

While that commitment has come after South Korea, the United States, Australia and the UK have launched initial commercial 5G services in the second quarter, the scale of China’s market is likely to dwarf the combined size of those economies, negating any first-mover advantage.

Telecoms gear maker ZTE Corp had been under the same crippling US trade ban last year, which forced the company to sue for peace by paying a US$1.2 billion fine, replacing its entire senior management and accepting a US monitor to ensure its compliance.

Jefferies’ Lee said in a report that the Chinese telecoms network operators “suspended all equipment tenders to wait for ZTE to come back”. These carriers are not expected to give up on Huawei, or rely on foreign suppliers Nokia and Ericsson, which could mean Beijing “will very likely slow down its 5G push” as negotiations are pursued to get Huawei’s trade ban lifted.

Still, the MIIT statement said the government welcomed both “domestic and foreign enterprises to actively participate in China’s 5G network construction”.

Hong Kong-listed China Mobile, Unicom and China Telecom currently buy their network equipment from multiple suppliers, including Nokia and Ericsson.

Those two European companies, however, stand to lose ground in China as the three domestic carriers are seen favouring Huawei and ZTE.

China Mobile, the world’s largest wireless network operator, called for a tender in March to supply 500 5G mobile base stations, without stating the geographic coverage and timeline.

The Beijing-based state-owned telecoms operator may award the bulk of the tender to Huawei and ZTE, while allocating five per cent to Ericsson and none to Nokia, sources earlier told the Post.