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5G networks

In-house chips power Huawei's 5G drive beyond China

Tech giant strikes 50 telecom gear deals in Europe and Middle East

Huawei Tenchnologies' miniaturization of base station antennas aims to help carriers transition to 5G more easily.   © Getty Images

SHANGHAI -- Chinese telecom equipment makers claim they have overcome technical and standards-related challenges to establish themselves as global leaders in 5G, drawing customers from around the world even amid a challenging geopolitical environment.

Ken Hu, rotating chairman of Huawei Technologies, showed his confidence in the company's superiority when he said in June that efforts to set up fifth-generation wireless networks in Europe would be delayed for two years if Huawei base stations were excluded.

Speaking with reporters at the MWC telecommunications expo here -- about a month after Huawei was slapped with U.S. sanctions -- Hu announced that the company had struck deals with 50 wireless carriers outside China, of which, 28 were European while 11 deals came from the Middle East. The remainder included 6 deals in the Asia Pacific. He attributed Huawei's appeal to its cutting-edge technology and cost advantage.

Base stations, which receive and transmit signals, represent the core of wireless infrastructure and contain the greatest advances in telecom technology. Each carrier needs its own individualized equipment, making this a much more lucrative field than smartphones, Huawei's other main business.

Huawei unveiled new equipment for 5G base stations in February, featuring antennas that weigh just 20 kg -- small enough to be installed by a single person, a presenter said. The new platforms pack the antenna and control systems into one compact unit that is also compatible with 2G, 3G and 4G.

Miniaturization is of crucial importance to carriers making the jump to 5G. There are more than 300,000 4G base stations across Japan -- and more than 10 times that many in China -- which need to be upgraded, and smaller equipment cuts down on labor and construction costs.

Huawei's advances in this area owe to its surmounting two long-standing challenges.

One was its lack of internally developed processors for base stations. It now has its own chips designed by subsidiary HiSilicon Technologies, which was established in 2004 to help Huawei become more self-sufficient in semiconductors. The new chipset unveiled in January handles data faster than other processors and allows for the footprint of base station antennas to be cut in half.

"Our company has amassed huge amounts of the underlying technology [for base stations], from chips to materials and liquid coolant," said Li XiaoXun, head of the technological strategy department at Huawei's Japanese arm.

Huawei's other big disadvantage lay in its use of a different type of wireless transmission system than that preferred by most of the world -- something that is now actually working in its favor.

In the 2000s, Huawei and its largest Chinese peer, ZTE, began developing TDD -- or time division duplex -- technology, in which incoming and outgoing signals share the same spectrum. At the time, other countries favored FDD, or frequency division duplex, which transmits and receives signals on separate frequency bands.

In 5G networks, data is transmitted with pinpoint precision to individual devices to prevent signals from interfering with each other even when large numbers of devices are concentrated in a small area. This is easier to implement with China's TDD than with FDD.

"Huawei's technical capabilities have been on par with those of European manufacturers during the 4G era," said Hiroyuki Morikawa, a professor at the University of Tokyo and a member of a Japanese 5G standards-setting body.

The Chinese company "could gain even more momentum in the 5G era" by leveraging its overwhelming cost advantage, he said.

European companies, particularly Ericsson and Nokia, long played a leading role in setting telecom standards, with Chinese manufacturers forced to pay hefty fees to license the necessary technology. But Chinese players have since vaulted to the top of the technological heap, thanks partly to a campaign by the Chinese government for broader adoption of TDD that began about 2013.

Morikawa said Huawei has sent huge numbers of employees to international meetings on standardization to communicate closely with officials and companies from other countries.

Brisk Chinese demand has boosted the competitiveness and financial wherewithal of equipment makers there. After the Chinese government issued 5G licenses to telecom operators in June, state-owned China Mobile announced a plan at MWC Shanghai that month to install over 50,000 base stations in more than 50 cities in 2019.

China lagged slightly behind in granting 5G licenses, being the fifth country to do so. But its three big state-owned wireless companies got a head start by setting up test facilities, mainly in major cities, before being officially licensed. The largest, China Mobile, partnered with Huawei to set up base stations in a railway station and a mall in Shanghai.

Huawei has poured $4 billion into 5G development over the past decade and plans to keep investing heavily in this area, according to Hu. Compatriot ZTE is also going on the offensive with its base station business.

"Ours are 30% cheaper than those of our European competitors," said Chen Liangwen, chief technology officer at ZTE Japan.

Morikawa suggested that deeper pockets, rather than better technology, is the secret to Chinese telecom equipment makers' success.

"Their ability to put money earned from their massive domestic market into research and development is an advantage, but their actual technology isn't that different from that of other manufacturers," he said.

5G is a central element of the Chinese government's "Made in China 2025" industrial modernization initiative. "China's aim in building up its 5G network is upgrading its industry," said IHS Markit analyst Mitsue Oba.

With 100 times the speed of 4G technology, 5G is expected to facilitate technologies such as remotely operated industrial robots and autonomous vehicles. Chinese companies' advances in infrastructure are helping to turn the country into a 5G superpower.

The country's national 5G push aims to "send a message that it has surpassed developing nations to achieve the world's highest level of telecom technology," Morikawa said.

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