Critical Infrastructure Security

Germany's 5G Safety Review Could Ban Huawei and ZTE Gear

Berlin Reportedly Eyes Chinese Equipment Ban, Would Make Telcos Rip and Replace
Germany's 5G Safety Review Could Ban Huawei and ZTE Gear
Image: Shutterstock

Germany is conducting a national security review of high-speed mobile telecommunications gear made by Huawei in a likely prelude to banning the Chinese manufacturer from supplying domestic telecoms.

See Also: OnDemand Webinar | Measuring Your Data's Risk & The Cost of Unpreparedness

A spokesman for the German Interior Ministry acknowledged Tuesday the review is underway, telling reporters during a regular press conference that the probe could lead to telecoms ripping out already-purchased Huawei gear, multiple news outlets reported. Weekly newspaper Die Zeit reported Monday the ban could also extend to ZTE, a smaller Chinese competitor to Shenzhen-based Huawei, which is the world's largest manufacturer of telecom equipment.

German consumers account for a quarter of European mobile customers, found a 2022 report by Strand Consult, an international telecom consulting firm. The same study found that 59% of 5G radio access network equipment active in German networks comes from Chinese vendors.

"Huawei enjoys a higher market share in Berlin than in Beijing where it shares the market with ZTE and other vendors," the report concluded.

German officials have debated a Huawei ban for years as concerns in the United States over the national security implications of Chinese technology in domestic networks resulted in their progressive elimination.

Then U.S. President Donald Trump in early 2019 threatened to stop sharing certain types of high-value intelligence with Germany and other European nations if they opted to use Huawei technology as part of its national 5G rollout. Germany has long pursued a strategy of engagement with China, but attitudes in Berlin have showed some signs of hardening.

In 2021, the German Bundestag amended the country's cybersecurity laws to grant the BSI "the power of injunction to issue orders to telecommunications and telemedia providers to avert specific threats to information security" as well as the ability to ban "the deployment and operation of critical components," among other powers.

The BSI subsequently launched its safety review of Chinese-built 5G equipment, and "this review is under way," Maximilian Kall, a spokesman for the German Interior Ministry, said Tuesday.

While the BSI's ongoing tests of Chinese-built 5G devices and antennas have found no backdoors, officials have sufficient national security concerns that they are set to prohibit its use, Die Zeit reported.

A ban would largely affect Germany's three biggest telecommunications firms - Deutsche Telekom, Britain-owned Vodafone and Spanish-owned Telefónica, which also owns the O2 brand. Deutsche Telekom uses Huawei gear as part of its infrastructure, Die Zeit found.

National Security Concerns

Huawei faces intense scrutiny because of national security concerns, including Beijing's legal ability since the 2017 National Intelligence Law to compel businesses to "support, assist and cooperate with the state," meaning manufacturers could be forced to alter their software and hardware to government specifications.

A number of countries have banned the use of equipment from Chinese vendors in their 5G networks, including the United States, United Kingdom, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Japan and Sweden.

In Europe, the European Commissioner has left it to EU member states to decide the issue for themselves. Belgium, Denmark, France, Romania, Sweden and the Baltic countries - Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia - have all instituted bans of some kind.

Huawei has always competed on price, and it made inroads across the world by building less expensive core telecommunications gear as well as the radio access networks used to wirelessly connect core devices together.

West Seeks 'Digital Sovereignty'

The goal for many Western countries is to control all parts of the 5G supply chain. But years of underinvestment in domestic capabilities have left the U.S., U.K., EU and others scrambling to develop trusted, inexpensive alternatives (see: Britain's 5G Policy Failure: No Ideal Alternative to Huawei).

"The EU Commission is pushing hard for 'digital sovereignty' but member states are split on how this should work," cybersecurity policy expert Jan Lemnitzer said via Twitter.

Meanwhile, manufacturers such as Sweden's Ericsson, which has become the leading supplier of 5G equipment to the U.S. and others, have been careful to publicly distance themselves from bans of Chinese gear, "as they fear exclusion from the Chinese market," Lemnitzer wrote. Finland's Nokia is the other leading supplier of such equipment to the West.

About the Author

Mathew J. Schwartz

Mathew J. Schwartz

Executive Editor, DataBreachToday & Europe, ISMG

Schwartz is an award-winning journalist with two decades of experience in magazines, newspapers and electronic media. He has covered the information security and privacy sector throughout his career. Before joining Information Security Media Group in 2014, where he now serves as the executive editor, DataBreachToday and for European news coverage, Schwartz was the information security beat reporter for InformationWeek and a frequent contributor to DarkReading, among other publications. He lives in Scotland.

Around the Network

Our website uses cookies. Cookies enable us to provide the best experience possible and help us understand how visitors use our website. By browsing, you agree to our use of cookies.