It’s a dilemma for European telecoms firms: Should they steal a march on competitors and rapidly roll out next-generation 5G mobile networks using equipment from top supplier Huawei? Or should they heed US-led warnings of security threats and sit tight, and possibly fall behind?
Getting it right will have big consequences as 5G networks are the next milestone in the digital revolution, bringing near-instantaneous connectivity, vast data capacity and futuristic technologies.
No operator wants to be left behind, and neither do governments who see 5G technology as a future key driver of economic growth.
China’s Huawei has quietly become a leading supplier of the backbone equipment for mobile networks, particularly in developing markets thanks to cheaper prices.
Spearheading cutting-edge 5G equipment has also seen it make inroads into developed markets.
However, a growing number of Western states are turning their backs on Huawei, fearful that its equipment could be a Trojan horse for Beijing’s intrusive security apparatus as Chinese laws require its firms to cooperate with intelligence services.
China’s Huawei has quietly become a leading supplier of the backbone equipment for mobile networks
Huawei strenuously denies its equipment could be used for espionage.
While most European governments are trying to make up their minds, mobile operators must make their own choice, and it’s a tough one.
Several operators have already begun tests with Huawei equipment, such as Bouygues Telecom and SFR have in several French cities.
“Huawei is today more expensive than its rivals but it is also much better, they have really moved ahead in terms of quality of network equipment over their European competitors,” said an executive of one European mobile operator recently on condition of anonymity.
Experts say Huawei is between six months and one year ahead of Sweden’s Ericsson in terms of the quality of its 5G equipment.
The number two mobile network equipment manufacturer, Finland’s Nokia, is said to be even further behind.
“Many want to avoid the Chinese but they are currently the most advanced in the area,” said Victor Marcais, a telecoms and media specialist at Roland Berger consultancy.
“Huawei has moved in the past few years from being the ‘low cost’ option to becoming the 5G leader.”