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German 5G network ban said to loom for Huawei and ZTE

Playing catch-up with Western allies, federal government to initiate rip 'n replace for mobile operators

The nation of Germany looks set to belatedly join the ban on Huawei and ZTE equipment being used in national telecoms networks, after years of stubbornly resisting pressure from the US to comply.

The German federal government plans to forbid mobile operators from installing key components from Huawei and ZTE into their 5G networks, according to local reports. The ban will extend to already installed equipment, requiring companies to rip and replace components made by the two Chinese suppliers.

The reports come from German newspaper Zeit Online, which claims the information originated from loquacious people in “government circles.”

The Federal Office for Information Security (BSI) and the Federal Ministry of the Interior, it says, have been conducting checks into Germany’s expanding 5G networks looking for anything that might prove a threat to security.

The authorities are apparently concerned that suppliers based in countries including China may be controlled by their governments, and that this could lead to them having illicit access to Germany’s telecoms networks.

This development appears to be a change in policy for a government that previously resisted pressure from Washington to exclude China-made equipment – from Huawei in particular – from its telecoms networks.

In 2019, the head of Germany's Federal Office for Information Security was insistent that any risks posed by Huawei were manageable, and mobile networks would be safer being built using equipment from a range of different vendors.

In fact, the situation seems rather reminiscent of the UK, where the government was initially sanguine about the threat posed by having Huawei equipment deployed in 5G networks. A special unit, the Huawei Cyber Security Evaluation Centre, was set up years ago to analyze the code inside the company’s network kit and found evidence of shoddy programming, but no backdoors.

However, the UK came under sustained political pressure from the US to eject Huawei from its networks, with threats such as a withdrawal of intelligence sharing if Westminster failed to comply with Washington’s demands.

In 2020, the UK government banned Britain’s telcos from purchasing equipment from the Chinese company, and last year issued formal legal notices that any already installed kit must be removed by the end of 2027.

It isn’t clear whether US pressure has also influenced the German government’s change of mind, but it has not happened overnight. Zeit Online reports that concern has been growing in the country for some time that key parts of critical infrastructure might become dependent on foreign technology. For this reason, legislation was passed in 2021 requiring components for critical IT infrastructure to be approved by the BSI and the Ministry of the Interior.

It is also possible the wider geopolitical situation, with the war in Ukraine and increasing tensions between the US and China, has caused Berlin to re-evaluate the potential risks posed by having Chinese equipment in its telecoms networks.

Telecoms analyst Paolo Pescatore of PP Foresight took a slightly different view, that Berlin may have been swayed by internal concerns within the country, as had been at odds with partners and allies.

“Before now Germany has taken a different view compared to its European counterparts. This has led to unrest and concern among key stakeholders which is probably why Germany is reconsidering its current approach,” he said.

Zeit Online also reports that Germany’s telecoms operators “did not want to wait years before expanding their networks” and were pushing for certainty on whether Chinese kit was acceptable or not before committing to more investment.

The cost of ripping and replacing Huawei likely won't be cheap. In Britain, BT said projected the costs at close to £500 million ($599 million). Vodafone estimated its costs at €200 million ($213 million).

This will inevitably be another blow for Huawei, Pescatore said. The company invested heavily in research and development of 5G technology, but has seen Western markets increasingly closed off for what it regards as politically motivated reasons.

The FT reports that Huawei is now hunting for new markets, especially in south-east Asia, and is currently lobbying to play a part in Malaysia’s rollout of 5G networks.

However, despite Washington pressuring allies into banning Chinese kit, it seems that individual US states are still happy to do so. At least, that was the situation last year, when The Register reported that thousands of public officials across the US were still purchasing prohibited technology from Huawei, ZTE, and other Chinese companies, and that most state and local governments simply had not made any changes to their procurement policies.

A spokeperson at ZTE senty us a statement: "ZTE's products remain secure and no evidence has been produced that would suggest otherwise. Our 5G NR products recently received NESAS CCS-GI certificate, demonstrating that we comply with German security standards. ZTE maintains an attitude of openness and transparency, we welcome external assessment and scrutiny of our products."

A press spokeperson at Huawei sent us a statement: "Huawei has a strong security record in Germany and around the world for over 20 years.

"Huawei believes that there should an objective and factual discussion about how risks in cyberspace can be mitigated. This approach includes clear standards, certifications and verifications. The consensus among the vast majority of security experts is that restrictions of a reliable supplier with a strong security record will not make infrastructure more secure." ®

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