Tuesday 19 March 2019

Huawei can be trusted on 5G rollout, say tech giant's Irish executives

Critics claim its connections to the Chinese government make it a security risk for 5G networks. But at Mobile World Congress, its bosses tell Adrian Weckler it would resist pressure from Beijing

Mate: A man checks his phone next to an advertisement of a new Huawei Mate X device at the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona, Spain
Mate: A man checks his phone next to an advertisement of a new Huawei Mate X device at the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona, Spain
Adrian Weckler

Adrian Weckler

Huawei is "not interested in politics" and would reject any requests from Chinese state authorities for 'backdoor entry' into 5G mobile networks that the company is building in Ireland or Europe, its chief executive in Ireland says.

"Our founder, Mr Ren [Zhengfei] already said we will not provide such a service if it's requested from the government," said Jijay Shen, speaking to the Irish Independent. "That's the first point. Secondly, we always comply with local law in different countries. In Ireland, we will follow Irish law, 100pc. In Germany, we'll follow German law. Compliance is very important to us."

Jijay Shen made the remarks at Mobile World Congress, the global telecoms conference underway in Barcelona this week.

Asked about the possibility of Chinese authorities insisting on access to Huawei's telecoms networks in western countries, a separate spokesman for the company said that Huawei had never had such a request from the Chinese government.

'Our relationship is with the operators," the spokesman said. "It's for governments and regulators to decide how the operators behave."

Huawei, which employs 170 people in Ireland and is involved in the network rollout of most major Irish telecoms operators, has been at the centre of a row with US authorities over whether its next-generation 5G mobile infrastructure represents a security risk for western countries.

Some US commentators have argued that the company's ties with Chinese authorities are too tight and that Beijing might seek backdoor access to critical 5G communications systems that might control cars and electricity grids, as well as mobile phones.

However, Huawei has repeatedly denied that there is any security risk from deploying its equipment in 'core' mobile networks, arguing that US suspicions of governmental influence from China are unfounded.

And in recent weeks, a number of large European countries, including Germany and Britain, look to have rejected the thrust of the security fears with security agencies suggesting that any risk could be managed.

Jijay Shen said that the company is setting up a number of cybersecurity centres across Europe to work with operators and national authorities, some of whom may have questions after months of international tension.

Likening the centres to an "open lab", he said that the labs will be open to "partner organisations" which "want to look at our products".

Huawei's deputy chief in Ireland, Dave Kenny, said that cybersecurity is not an issue at the company. "In 30 years of being in business, we've never had one serious cybersecurity issue," he said. "If that did happen, it would badly damage our reputation. Trust is critical in this business."

The Irish Huawei executives were speaking after an announcement by the company that it would continue rolling out its 5G network infrastructure in Ireland with local operators.

"Our work in Ireland is part of an ongoing 15-year relationship with the Irish market which has seen us invest more than €30m in the past four years into research and development," he said. "It is our intention to deepen this relationship even further in the years ahead."

Huawei set up office here in 2004 and conducts research and development into software. In Ireland, Eir is using Huawei for the rollout of its infrastructure, as is Three. Imagine Communications - which recently announced an intention to build 325 wireless base stations in rural areas of Ireland connecting up to 130,000 people with broadband - is also using the vendor's equipment for its core network.

While Irish mobile operators are not expected to have 5G networks up and running for normal consumers before the end of this year, the industry is competing furiously on who will benefit from the technology.

Huawei is considered by most industry analysts to be ahead of rivals in rolling out infrastructure for the high speed networks, which will be used for futuristic products such as autonomous vehicles.

5G is the dominant theme of this year's Mobile World Conference, which has seen over 100,000 technology, government and media industry executives descend on Barcelona to discuss the future of telecommunications.

It differs from 4G in its ability to connect devices more quickly, with lower levels of 'latency'. This means that a self-driving car can respond to a signal instantly rather than waiting a fraction of a second, which may be too late. It is also expected to be crucial in linking millions of new sensors in everyday products and machinery as automation gathers pace.

Last week, US President Donald Trump appeared to soften America's line on Huawei by tweeting that Americans should focus on competing with 5G network competitors, not "blocking" them.

"American companies must step up their efforts or get left behind," he tweeted. "I want the United States to win through competition, not by blocking out currently more advanced technologies."

The remarks came a few days after the founder of Huawei, Ren Zhengfei, told the BBC that there is "no way the US can crush" Huawei.

"The world cannot leave us because we are more advanced," he said. "Even if they persuade more countries not to use us temporarily, we can always scale things down a bit."

The Huawei founder's daughter, Meng Wanzhou, has been arrested on foot of a US warrant, with American authorities pursuing criminal charges that include money laundering and stealing trade secrets.

The Huawei founder said that he believes these are "politically-motivated" charges, something US authorities deny.

Elsewhere at this year's Mobile World Congress, a number of Irish companies announced new deals at the event. Cubic Telecom, which has raised over €75m in funding and counts Volkswagen and Qualcomm as major shareholders, announced that its technology would connect future Skoda cars to online services.

The company, led by CEO Barry Napier, already provides mobile network connectivity for Volkswagens, Audis and other popular car brands.

"We'll also soon connect Harley-Davidsons," Napier told the Irish Independent. "The company is investing in electric bikes, which need to be able to provide telematics and analytics. That will be us."

Cubic employs 130 people. It specialises in connecting devices and cars to mobile networks so that they can be tracked, measured or provide emergency and entertainment services. Last week, the company announced a deal with Microsoft for its Microsoft Connected Fleet Platform, a set of services built on Microsoft Azure for the automotive industry to connect cars.

Other Irish firms to furnish details about deals included the Dublin-based internet of things firm Asavie, which announced that its IoT Connect product will now be available in the US through Verizon and in Europe on Amazon Web Services.

"By simplifying the secure integration of data from edge IoT devices to the cloud, Asavie empowers global businesses to drive increased cost savings, reduce risk and expedite their IoT implementations," said Asavie CEO Ralph Shaw.

Meanwhile, Wicklow-based Druid Software announced an industry partnership with the British firm Bence Command while Dublin-based Benetel demonstrated a new mobile LTE solution.

Mobile World Congress also saw a number of notable smartphone launches.

The most high-profile event was hosted by Huawei, which unveiled a foldable phone. The Mate X is an 8-inch tablet that folds in half to create a 6.5-inch smartphone with screens front and back.

It works using a bendable screen. A hinge sits down the middle of the device which allows the entire screen to bend and fold.

Huawei's gadget comes a week after Samsung announced something similar - the Galaxy Fold.

However, both devices are being launched at a premium price of more than €2,000.

Both are expected to go on sale in Ireland by the end of April.

A number of rival phone companies have said they will also develop folding tablet-phones, with video-hungry consumers in mind.

Other new movie-centric phones for the Irish market were launched, including Sony's new Xperia 1, the first to use a 4K Oled screen, 6.5-inches in diameter.

The handset also comes with three rear cameras. Sony has yet to release a price, although it is expected to be close to €1,000.

The company also launched the Xperia 10 (€329) and 10 Plus (€399) handsets, with 6-inch and 6.5-inch displays, featuring dual cameras on the back of the phone, although only the 10 Plus model uses an optical zoom.

Sony is trying to position all three phones as 'creator' handsets. The company is making a point of the phones' 21:9 ratio, making them considerably narrower than other phones on the market.

The idea is that almost three quarters of new movies are now being made in the letterbox-like 21:9 format, with Sony keen to emphasise its film industry connections in this field.

'Hyper' camera phones were also launched, with Nokia's re-emergence in the phone world buttressed by a new Android model with five cameras on the rear of the device, all to create extra precision for a single photo.

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