Berlin may stop short of an outright ban on Chinese telecommunications technology, but tight new security rules may mean Huawei is in effect excluded from the country’s 5G network.
Treading softly with China.
Germany will not formally ban technology made by controversial Chinese firm Huawei from its next generation (5G) mobile networks, Handelsblatt has learned from a number of government sources.
However, companies bidding to build and operate the 5G networks are being strongly discouraged from using Huawei equipment, which could amount to an effective ban.
Debate about the Huawei situation has been ongoing for weeks within government, as an increasing number of countries, including the United States, Australia, and New Zealand, have formally banned Huawei technology. Intelligence agencies fear that Huawei technology could come with built-in capacities to enable Beijing to more easily spy on telecommunications traffic.
Fearing Beijing’s prying eyes, Germany aims to raise security standards to restrict the use of Chinese telecoms equipment. Deutsche Telekom and Telefónica are already checking how to remove Huawei gear from their networks.
Germany’s foreign ministry shares the fears but is also anxious not to alienate China, a hugely important export market for German companies. It also fears that banning Chinese technology could delay the development of Germany’s 5G infrastructure, at a time when industry is pressing for the networks to be completed as soon as possible. These concerns have been building ahead of the 5G frequency auction in March.
Government sources suggest that Angela Merkel was influential in avoiding a complete ban on the Chinese company. While visiting Japan, she called for better assurances on security from Huawei and the Chinese government.
In place of a ban, ministers have asked government agencies to draw up tight security protocols which any companies bidding for a part in the 5G rollout will have to agree to. The process involves both the Federal Network Agency (BNA) and the Federal Office for Information Technology Security (BSI). The new rules should be in place before the frequency auction.
Depending on the phrasing of the new regulations, they could amount to a de facto ban on the Chinese company. As of now, there are no concrete accusations against Huawei, more a general atmosphere of suspicion.
The partnership would become the fourth mobile network provider in Germany next to Telekom, Vodafone and Telefónica, but also put vital infrastructure in Chinese hands.
Berlin also needs to create a legal basis that could quickly force network operators to replace certain technical components if there is an intelligence emergency. Without this, say government sources, security services could be dangerously delayed in responding to new threats.
The new rules will be largely based on current German telecommunications law, which requires network operators take specific measures to avoid security threats. Now, companies will need to provide more details and carry out risk analyses. The rules will require varying levels of security architecture for different, specific technologies.
On the whole, experts have welcomed the government decision. Jan-Peter Kleinhans, an IT security expert with the Berlin-based thinktank New Responsibility Foundation (SNV), approves of the approach. Longer term, he said this could be the first of many run-ins with China on IT security.
Vodafone, one of the three major bidding for a place in the 5G system, says it will voluntarily stop using Huawei equipment. Its two main rivals, Deutsche Telekom and Telefónica, have not yet announced a similar move. The Chinese company is a world leader in some areas of network construction and operation: in some cases, it may be hard to find replacement technology.
Deutsche Telekom is also considering filing a suit to halt Germany’s 5G spectrum auction. That puts both the auction and network build-out at risk of delays.
Furthermore, banning Huawei components could push up the cost of building the new network, imposing extra costs for companies and lessening competition in the network technology market. Volker Perthes, director of the German Institute for International and Security Affairs, or SWP, praised the government’s softer approach, saying a Europe-wide strategy was needed on overseas technologies in key infrastructure networks.
Daniel Delhaes is a Berlin-based political correspondent focusing on the CDU and CSU for Handelsblatt. Dana Heide is a Berlin-based correspondent for Handelsblatt where she covers the economics ministry, focusing on digital policy, innovation and the FDP party. Moritz Koch, formerly a Washington correspondent, reports on politics from Berlin for Handelsblatt. To contact the authors: [email protected], [email protected], [email protected]
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