Huawei role in European 6G work risks new China-US clash

Critical 'sensing' systems could have military applications and Huawei is active in a European group that includes Apple and Interdigital.

Iain Morris, International Editor

January 31, 2024

5 Min Read
Huawei engineer on a basestation.
The Chinese company's involvement in 6G could meet new resistance.(Source: Huawei)

Bouncing radio signals off unconnected objects to work out their size, shape, position and even what they are made of is all set to be the big thing in 6G. After an epic round of decision making that happened last June in Taiwan, at a workshop organized by the 3GPP, the coordinator for mobile standards, this "sensing" is on the 6G fast track and could be a commercial reality as soon as 2030.

Amid some Gs fatigue, and the disappointment that has so far surrounded 5G, sensing may genuinely represent the most significant development in mobile technology since boffins originally managed to put the Internet on a phone. It could embellish augmented reality, let drivers know precisely where parking spaces are available, alert hospitals if someone vulnerable falls in their home, adapt sound and video systems to suit the environment. The list is endless.

There are military uses, too. Ukrainian soldiers on the frontline of the war against Russia have been setting up temporary core and radio access networks to support private communications. In future, sensing could determine the optimal location for site equipment, ensuring trees and other physical objects – whether natural or manmade – do not obstruct the signal. More scarily, it could aid precision strikes on military targets. And that makes the early involvement of Huawei in European 6G development potentially alarming for the Chinese vendor's numerous western opponents.

Huawei is one of three commercial organizations participating in a sensing project launched as recently as November by the European Telecommunications Standards Institute (ETSI), the regional body that feeds work into the 3GPP. This so-called Industry Specification Group (ISG) for Integrated Sensing and Communication (ISAC) also includes iPhone maker Apple and Interdigital, a less well-known US research company that earns money from royalties paid by gadget makers for the use of patented mobile technologies. The ISG's output could potentially be included in a future 6G standard.

'A Chinese ecosystem will be formidable'

Despite US anxiety about Chinese ownership of 5G patents, there have not been coordinated attempts to exclude Huawei and the smaller ZTE, owned by China's government, from international standards development. Big industry stakeholders have resisted any such political impulse, typically arguing that it would lead to standards fragmentation, inconvenience and higher costs.

Two-and-a-half years ago, during an interview with Light Reading, Ericsson CEO Börje Ekholm warned of the consequences of a standards split. "If the tech world is fragmented east and west then it is going to mean competition between two ecosystems," he said. "A Chinese ecosystem will be formidable competition for the west. It concerns me that end users – customers and enterprises – will feel it in their mobile experience."

But this permissiveness on standardization contrasts sharply with broader efforts to restrict Chinese vendors in 5G and stymie technological progress in China. Under US pressure, countries such as the UK moved to ban Huawei and ZTE after American authorities introduced sanctions, cutting the Chinese companies off from important components. Hawks have long argued that China's government could use software "backdoors" installed in Huawei and ZTE products to spy on other countries or even bring down critical infrastructure. John Strand, the CEO of a Danish advisory firm called Strand Consult, has likened this risk to Germany's reliance on Russian gas before the invasion of Ukraine.

That has not changed the position of companies active in standards development. "It's hard for the industry to ban or say Huawei is not welcome," said Alain Mourad, the head of Interdigital's European wireless lab, during an update with reporters and analysts in London this week. "They are also a key player in the 3GPP, so there is no way to say we would like to do this work without [Huawei]. The standard at the end of the day is going to be a global standard. When it gets deployed there are decisions to be made by governments and by operators as to who to pick."

The logic would be that governments can minimize the sort of risks envisaged by Strand when deciding which vendors will be allowed to supply 6G equipment and software. And Huawei, unlike Interdigital, makes nearly all its money from product sales rather than royalties on patents. Last year, the company generated about 637 billion Chinese yuan (US$90 billion) in revenues, down from RMB891 billion ($126 billion) in 2021, after it was hurt by US sanctions. Yet to publish numbers for 2023, it expects sales of RMB700 billion ($99 billion).

Chinese control

Nevertheless, US authorities have been worried about China's influence over 5G development. After playing a relatively small part in 3G and 4G, Huawei emerged as a major 3GPP force during 5G standardization, and several analyst reports have subsequently ranked it among the biggest owners of patents, alongside western vendors such as Ericsson and Nokia. It invested about $22.6 billion in research and development (R&D) in 2022, compared with the $9.4 billion spent by the two Nordic vendors. At the end of 2022, Huawei boasted more than 120,000 "active" patents and claimed this represented "one of the world's largest patent portfolios."

Interdigital, by comparison, spent just $185 million on "research and portfolio development" in 2022, down from $200 million the year before, and held a portfolio in December 2022 of about 28,800 patents. Meanwhile, there is concern about the lack of major US players in mobile standards development. Given the R&D efforts by established companies, Mourad does not expect to see much change in the top ten owners of standard-essential patents with the transition from 5G to 6G, he said this week.

The fear among China's critics is that Huawei may be able to influence the future shape of a global 6G standard to its advantage. There is already talk of Huawei attempting to slow down 6G standardization until China has made further progress on the domestic development of advanced chips needed for 6G products. Opponents might also have jitters about Huawei earning royalties from the rollout of technologies made by western companies. In the technology clash between east and west, a new front could soon open.

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About the Author(s)

Iain Morris

International Editor, Light Reading

Iain Morris joined Light Reading as News Editor at the start of 2015 -- and we mean, right at the start. His friends and family were still singing Auld Lang Syne as Iain started sourcing New Year's Eve UK mobile network congestion statistics. Prior to boosting Light Reading's UK-based editorial team numbers (he is based in London, south of the river), Iain was a successful freelance writer and editor who had been covering the telecoms sector for the past 15 years. His work has appeared in publications including The Economist (classy!) and The Observer, besides a variety of trade and business journals. He was previously the lead telecoms analyst for the Economist Intelligence Unit, and before that worked as a features editor at Telecommunications magazine. Iain started out in telecoms as an editor at consulting and market-research company Analysys (now Analysys Mason).

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