AT&T CEO Randall Stephenson said that the U.S. Government is asking the right questions when it comes to Huawei, and that Europe may not really have a choice in whether or not to ban the Chinese vendor.
In a discussion this week at the Economic Club in Washington D.C., Stephenson addressed some of the concerns swirling around the Chinese equipment vendor, noting that they seem to be misunderstood or unclear. He clarified what he saw as the risk for allowing Huawei in a 5G network.
“I don’t think our government is doing the best work in explaining why the security risk exists,” he said. “To me, the biggest risk is not that the Chinese government might listen in on our phone conversations or mine our data somehow if we use their equipment. That’s not the issue.”
The issue, he said, is that 5G (and its equipment) will be so pervasive in future society that “if that much of our infrastructure will be attached to that kind of technology, do we want to be cautious about the underlying company behind the technology? We damn well better be.”
Earlier this month, the battle between Huawei and the U.S. government took on new life as the vendor filed a lawsuit against the U.S., challenging its previous equipment band. This came as the U.S. government remains adamant that the company poses a security threat, pressuring its allies to implement similar bans, and as Huawei remains adamant that it does not.
Many European countries, despite U.S. pressure, have taken a different stance — Germany, last week, told the U.S. to butt out over Huawei and 5G.
Stephenson said “this is the most confused issue that’s getting front-page reporting.” Rather than being about security, he said the real issue for European operators and governments is that they want a diverse supply chain, but can’t get it.
“The problem is, with Huawei in a 5G network, they are not allowing it to be diverse supply chain. If you have deployed Huawei as your 4G network, Huawei is not allowing interoperability to 5G,” he said. “Meaning if you are with Huawei for 4G, you’re stuck with Huawei for 5G and this is a problem. When the Europeans say we have a problem, that’s their problem: they don’t have an option to go with to somebody else.”
Europe has signaled concerns that they are falling behind in the move to deploy 5G networks. And some operators have claimed that a widespread Huawei ban would push them even farther behind.
Other European equipment vendors, namely Nokia and Ericsson, say that this isn’t necessarily the truth and that spectrum allocation and lack of consolidation are the bigger threats. And maybe they have a point. Danish telecom provider TDC sidestepped Huawei in favor of Ericsson to build the country’s 5G network. TDC has a longstanding relationship with Huawei, including a six-year LTE deal with the vendor that was signed in 2014.
Who’s Ahead in 5G? It’s China Versus the US
As Europe grapples with these concerns, U.S. operators are moving full steam ahead. The current administration and policymakers, however, have questioned America’s ability to compete with China.
In February, President Donald Trump posted a series of tweets saying that the U.S. needed to step up its game in order to beat China to 5G, one of them stating: “I want the United States to win through competition, not by blocking out currently more advanced technologies.”
This is where Stephenson diverged from the U.S. government a bit, and even put some blame on the regulatory nature of 5G.
“It can take 2 to 3 years to get a cell site permit, we hear a lot of people including the folks in the administration talking about China is going to beat us to this in the world of 5G,” he said. “In China, they don’t spend two years getting a permit. They say we want a cell site and they go build it. Here, this 2 to 3 years will be a problem. The longest pole in the tent on 5G is going to be deploying hundreds of thousands of small cells.”
Stephenson said that today, China is not beating the U.S. on 5G. “today we have 5G, live 5G standards-based up and running in 12 markets, but China has zero, they’re running some trials.”
This isn’t to say that he doesn’t feel the threat from China: “China will commit to this. They have said this is a major focus of theirs from an economic development standpoint and a security standpoint. They will come hard. They are investing heavily.”