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Huawei is the new Nokia: Asian mobe maker sets out its stall

From chips to base stations, 2020 will be like the Finns' year 2000

A little over a thousand CTOs, CIOs and decision makers from the world’s mobile phone networks attended Huawei's mobile broadband forum event this week. It gives us a view of not only how Huawei sees the world, but of how it sees itself.

This year the event was held in Hong Kong. The twenty-three speakers were primarily customers – Hong Kong Telecom, Telefonica, NTT DoCoMo, Vodafone and China Mobile being among them.

Of those speakers 22 were men and just one was a woman, but that’s sadly pretty much the norm for the mobile industry.

A few of the speakers were from associated disciplines – Visa, Google, CNN – but only three speakers were from Huawei itself. As any salesman will tell you, a peer customer recommendation is by far the best way to close a sale.

Speakers were talking about 4.5G, 5G and spectrum which will give mobile connection speeds 1Gb/s and more. However, the glaring omission from the event was Wi-Fi for attendees, which was deeply ironic given the subject matter. We scavenged a connection by using the 4G iPad every delegate was lent as a hotspot. Quite why a company that makes Android tablets was lending out Apple products wasn’t clear.

The event has echoes of the kind of event Nokia held 15 years ago, laying out a future with ideas of how people would use new technologies (things like using WAP to apply for a mortgage) and leading the operators into buying their products. So there was lots of talk about connected cars, smart homes and the Internet of Things.

The event was kicked off by Huawei’s rotating president, who that day was Ken Hu. He stood in front of a huge screen on to which was projected the words “Connecting People”; the use of Nokia’s tag-line won’t have been lost on the operator audience. Once Nokia made infrastructure, handsets and chips. Today it’s just an infrastructure company, having sold its chip biz to Renesas and its handset business to Microsoft.

Huawei's chip business is called Hisilicon, and in the same model as Samsung, the parent company uses chips designed both in-house and from Qualcomm. Much as Nokia used to hold forth on industry growth targets and talk of connecting the last billion, Hu predicted 6.7 billion people would be using mobile broadband by 2020.

Given that the only people in the world who don’t have a mobile phone are very poor (no one notices that oldies don’t have phones) , the mobile industry wants to connect the billion poorest people – and makers of network kit want to connect “things” as well as people to the internet. Huawei estimates that there will be 100 billion things connected in 2025.

This was reflected by Huawei's tag-line becoming “Connecting Things”, and Hu talked of the network metrics needing to be “definable, measurable, manageable and monetisable.”

It’s always a bit of a relief when companies are honest about the importance of making money in a public forum, and not once was it suggested that Huawei was about making the world a better place for anyone other than the people in the room buying the kit.

In the early 2000s a survey found that a large number of Americans thought Nokia was an Asian brand. Today’s Nokia really is Asian. ®

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