Picture: ISTOCK
Picture: ISTOCK

Frankfurt — The telecoms industry has called on European governments to join mobile operators in establishing a testing regime to protect network security without having to resort to the disruptive step of excluding vendors from the market.

The initiative by the GSMA, which represents 800 operators worldwide, comes as the US steps up pressure on its allies to ban China’s Huawei Technologies on national security grounds.

Operators warn that such a step would disrupt the supply of equipment, increase costs to them and their customers, delay the rollout of next-generation 5G services by years, and potentially hobble existing networks.

“Such significant consequences, intended or not, are entirely avoidable,” the GSMA said,  just more than two weeks before it hosts its annual Mobile World Congress in Barcelona.

The industry fest, to be attended by more than 100,000 visitors, is also expected to feature a closed-door discussion of telecoms CEOs of the risks to the industry that would arise if governments boycott Huawei, sources have said.

The GSMA proposal marks the industry’s biggest attempt to avert more bans on Huawei, such as those introduced by the US and Australian governments, after Washington alleged its equipment could come with “back doors” that could be used for cyber espionage. Huawei is the world’s biggest supplier of telecoms network equipment with a market share of 28%.

Washington has also argued that Chinese vendors are subject to a National Intelligence Law that requires the country’s organisations and citizens to collaborate in espionage efforts.

The EU is considering proposals that would amount to a de facto ban on Huawei, senior officials say, adding to mounting international pressure on the Shenzhen-based company.

Huawei has denied the US claims, while European operators argue there is no evidence to suggest the Huawei equipment they use in their networks has ever been used for nefarious ends.

Work together

The GSMA said it is assembling a task force of European operators to identify ways to enhance existing testing regimes run by individual operators, by third-party laboratories or in partnership with 3GPP, the 5G standardisation body.

It recommended that governments and mobile operators work together to agree on an assurance and testing regime for Europe “so that it ensures confidence in network security while maintaining competition in the supply of network equipment”.

Responding, Huawei said: “We are committed to working globally with everyone involved in network security: partners, suppliers, regulators and governments, to find the best way to ensure the security, safety and privacy of data.”

Huawei, an associate member of the GSMA, is traditionally one of the biggest exhibitors in Barcelona. The Shenzhen-based company, also the number two in smartphones, is expected to offer a sneak-peek of its next handset on the eve of the event.

The GSMA push parallels similar calls by Europe’s largest mobile operator, Deutsche Telekom, to strengthen Germany’s testing and compliance regime without having to resort to a blanket ban on Chinese vendors.

Deutsche Telekom, Orange of France, Spain’s Telefonica and UK-based Vodafone all welcomed the initiative. Orange CEO Stephane Richard, who chairs the GSMA board, played a key role in drafting the text, a spokesperson said.

The European Commission declined to comment.

There is a great deal at stake: the GSMA estimates that mobile operators will invest $300bn-$500bn by 2025 in the rollout of 5G services in Europe that range from connected factories to superfast broadband internet.

“As European policymakers consider ways to further secure network infrastructure, we urge them not to lose focus on all relevant policy objectives — security, competition, innovation and consumer impact,” the GSMA said. “This requires a fact-based and risk-based approach.”