Almost three years on since the peak of the ‘untrusted vendors’ debate, Germany may move to place more direct sanctions on Huawei and ZTE

This week, reports from German media site Die Zeit suggest that the country is currently planning to ban the nation’s mobile operators from using 5G equipment made by the Chinese vendors Huawei and ZTE.

Exactly what types of equipment would be included in such a ban is currently unclear, but may include a number of key components already built into existing networks.

If this does turn out to be the case, it would present the German operators with an expensive and long-winded process of removing and replacing this equipment from their existing networks.

Back in 2020, fuelled in part by geopolitical tensions between the US and China as well as upcoming 5G rollouts across the continent, European governments were heavily scrutinising telecoms network equipment providers on security grounds.

At the time, the US government was arguing that Huawei and ZTE’s role in national network infrastructure represented a national security risk, potentially giving the Chinese state access to sensitive European data. The Chinese vendors, on the other hand, said that they were being unfairly discriminated against, noting that their equipment had undergone the prerequisite security checks, just like any other potential vendor.

By the end of the year, the UK and Sweden had banned Huawei and ZTE from their networks outright, ordering their operators to remove gradually existing equipment from these vendors over the coming years. Other European nations, however, took a more tentative approach, conducting their own investigations into the matter and refusing to issue an outright ban.

Germany was in the latter camp, with the government repeatedly delaying a formal decision and rejecting calls for a ban.

It was around this time that the EU released its ‘5G security toolbox’, which aimed to provide guidelines for 5G network security. Alongside following these recommendations, Germany itself passed a new IT security law in 2021, that would allow the government to intervene in telecoms contracts related to ‘untrusted vendors’ and issues of national security. Taken together, it was posited that these measures would represent a de facto ban on telecoms operators signing new contracts with the likes of Huawei and ZTE.

In reality, however, it seems that this new law has posed little challenge to Huawei and ZTE, with the new law’s special mechanism having rarely been exercised, and never at scale.

By the end of last year, a report from consulting firm Strand Consult was announced showing the extent of the role that Huawei in particular still played in German networks, with estimates suggesting the vendor’s equipment now accounts for 59% of Germany’s 5G RAN and 57% of its 4G RAN.

Now, it would seem that this report, coupled with changing attitudes within the relatively new administration under Olal Scholz, are forcing the government to re-examine the issue.

According to the report from Die Zeit, Germany’s Federal Office for Information Security and the Federal Ministry of the Interior are currently conducting tests on 5G equipment currently deployed in the nation’s networks. While these tests will not formally be completed until the summer, the report suggests the existing results are already ‘clear’ enough for the government to begin planning a ban.

It is perhaps no coincidence that this news comes just a day after China’s premier XI Jinping officially began an unprecedented third term as the head of state. In various speeches at the annual political meeting, Xi said the country must strive for greater self-reliance and a dominant market position when it comes to science and technology.

Germany remains China’s biggest trading partner, with a particular reliance on the Asian nation for the import of rare earth metals and other raw materials.

What impact would a ban on Huawei and ZTE network equipment have on the German telecoms industry? Join the operators in discussion about this and other key issues at Total Telecom’s Connected Germany conference live in Munich

Also in the news:
Viasat–Inmarsat merger gets provisional greenlight from CMA
Verizon shuffles executive team in search of growth
Ericsson to pay DoJ $206.7m over bribery scandal