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German government debates Huawei role in 5G

February 6, 2019

Chinese telecom giant Huawei would like to help build up Germany's 5G mobile network, but concerns abound about the firm's closeness to Beijing and the potential for spying. Germany is not alone in its fears.

A man talks on a cell phone in front of a giant banner that reads Huawei 5G
Image: picture-alliance/dpa/Z. Min

German ministers came together in Berlin on Wednesday to discuss whether to block China's Huawei Technologies from building up Germany's 5G network out of data security concerns.

Germany, which wants to keep pace with rapidly developing mobile network technology, will auction off 5G frequencies to operators in March, but it is worried that if Huawei gains a market share, this could let the Chinese government gather confidential business and political information or enable it to disrupt infrastructure.

A 5G, or fifth-generation, network would allow massive volumes of data to be exchanged nearly instantaneously, facilitating greater digitalization of industrial and infrastructure processes.

Germany preparing for a 5G future

Further deliberation needed

Wednesday's meeting included ministers from the interior, economy, finance and transport ministries. 

The day before the meeting, German Chancellor Angela Merkel said that Germany must guarantee that Huawei would not hand over data to the Chinese government.

On Wednesday, Merkel spokesman Steffen Seibert said in a press conference that while the government wants to minimize security risks, it still needs to decide upon concrete measures.

"The government has not yet reached an opinion," he added.

Read more: Is angst about China behind Germany's stricter foreign investment rules?

The German business daily Handelsblatt said a security catalogue, certification rules and a no-spy pact with China were to be discussed on Wednesday, citing government sources.

A previous meeting had included participants from industry and German telecom firms. The proposals to safeguard security put forth then included setting up an independent lab run by Germany's cybersecurity watchdog to review all equipment before it is put in place.

Huawei is one of the world's largest mobile network providers. Its critics accuse it of cultivating close ties to the Chinese government and also point to a law that requires domestic companies to allow for government access, if requested. Huawei has rejected the claims and said its equipment cannot be used for spying. 

Read more: China slams Huawei 'hysteria'

'Political consequences' of ban

Dieter Kempf, head of the Federation of German Industry (BDI), said Wednesday that a blanket ban on China made no sense.

"It would narrow the choice of vendors. That could affect costs," he told Reuters. "More importantly, there would be political consequences — China could be tempted to retaliate against German companies," he said, arguing for the implementation of tough security standards.

"I believe the right path would be to make sure we manage our risks when it comes to tenders," Kempf said. "We must convey our reservations to the Chinese side and make it clear what we will not tolerate in our legal system."

Shared fears

Several nations have already blocked Huawei from building up their 5G networks, and the US is putting pressure on the EU to block the Chinese firm from taking part in the bid to participate.

Like Germany, France is also preoccupied with the security of its future mobile networks. The same day German ministers debated the issue in Berlin, French Economy Minister Bruno Le Maire said in a televised interview that it will also announce mobile security proposals in the near future.

"The role of the nation is to protect the economic interests of the country, 5G could lead us to taking strong decisions in this area," Le Maire said.

Poland is preparing to exclude Huawei from its future 5G network over security concerns after a firm employee was arrested last month alongside a former Polish security official for spying.

On Wednesday, Huawei said it was prepared to build a security center in Poland in order build confidence that its equipment does not contain a "back door" for Chinese intelligence services. The company has already set up information security labs in Britain and Germany.

cmb/aw (dpa, Reuters, AFP)

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