As 2011 draws to a close, Huawei faces some difficult questions about its business prospects in the United States. The company is expanding worldwide into enterprise networking and mobile devices, such as smartphones and tablets, even as it continues to grow its global telecommunications-equipment franchise.
Huawei is a company that generated 2010 revenue of about $28 billion, and it has an enviable growth profile for a firm of its size. But a dark cloud of suspicion continues to hang over it in the U.S. market, where it has not made headway commensurate with its success in other parts of the world. (As its Wikipedia entry states, Huawei’s products and services have been deployed in more than 140 countries, and it serves 45 of the world’s 50 largest telcos. None of those telcos are in the U.S.)
History of Suspicion
The reason it has not prospered in the U.S. is at primarily attributable to persistent government concerns about Huawei’s alleged involvement in cyber espionage as a reputed proxy for China. At this point, I will point out that none of the charges has been proven, and that any evidence against the company has been kept classified by U.S. intelligence agencies.
Nonetheless, innuendo and suspicions persist, and they inhibit Huawei’s ability to serve customers and grow revenue in the U.S. market. In the recent past, the U.S. government has admonished American carriers, including Sprint Nextel, not to buy Huawei’s telecommunications equipment on national-security concerns. On the same grounds, U.S. government agencies prevented Huawei from acquiring ownership stakes in U.S.-based companies such as 3Com, subsequently acquired by HP, and 3Leaf Systems. Moreover, Huawei was barred recently from participating in a nationwide emergency network, again for reasons of national security.
Through it all, Huawei has asserted that it has nothing to hide, that it operates no differently from its competitors and peers in the marketplace, and that it has no intelligence-gathering remit from the China or any other national government. Huawei even has welcomed an investigation by US authorities, saying that it wants to put the espionage charges behind it once and for all.
Well, it appears Huawei, among others, will be formally investigated, but it also seems the imbroglio with the U.S. authorities might continue for some time. We learned in November that the U.S. House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence would investigate potential security threats posed by some foreign companies, Huawei included.
In making the announcement relating to the investigation, U.S. Representative Mike Rogers, a Michigan Republican and the committee’s chairman, said China has increased its cyber espionage in the United States. He cited connections between Huawei’s president, Ren Zhengfei, and the People’s Liberation Army, to which the Huawei chieftain once belonged.
For its part, as previously mentioned, Huawei says it welcomes an investigation. Here’s a direct quote from William Plummer, a Huawei spokesman, excerpted from a recent Bloomberg article:
“Huawei conducts its businesses according to normal business practices just like everybody in this industry. Huawei is an independent company that is not directed, owned or influenced by any government, including the Chinese government.”
Unwanted Attention from Washington
The same Bloomberg article containing that quote also discloses that the U.S. government has invoked Cold War-era national-security powers to compel telecommunication companies, including AT&T Inc. and Verizon Communications Inc., to disclose confidential information about the components and composition of their networks in a hunt for evidence of Chinese electronic malfeasance.
Specifically, the U.S. Commerce Department this past spring requested a detailed accounting of foreign-made hardware and software on carrier networks, according to the Bloomberg article. It also asked the telcos and other companies about security-related incidents, such as the discovery of “unauthorized electronic hardware” or suspicious equipment capable of duplicating or redirecting data.
Brand Ambitions at Risk
The concerns aren’t necessarily exclusive to alleged Chinese cyber espionage, and Huawei is not the only company whose gear will come under scrutiny. Still, Huawei clearly is drawing a lot of unwanted attention in Washington.
While Huawei would like this matter to be resolved expeditiously in its favor, the investigations probably will continue for some time before definitive verdicts are rendered publicly. In the meantime, Huawei’s U.S. aspirations are stuck in arrested development.
To be sure, the damage might not be restricted entirely to the United States. As this ominous saga plays out, Huawei is trying to develop its brand in Europe, Asia, South America, Africa, and Australia. It’s making concerted advertising and marketing pushes for its smartphones in the U.K., among other jurisdictions, and it probably doesn’t want consumers there or elsewhere to be inundated with persistent reports about U.S. investigations into its alleged involvement with cyber espionage and spyware.
Indulge me for a moment as I channel my inner screenwriter.
Scenario: U.K. electronics retailer. Two blokes survey the mobile phones on offer. Bloke One picks up a Huawei smartphone.
Bloke One: “I quite fancy this Android handset from Huawei. The price is right, too.”
Bloke Two: “Huawei? Isn’t that the dodgy Chinese company being investigated by the Yanks for spyware?
Bloke One puts down the handset and considers another option.
Dark humor aside, there are serious implications for Huawei as it remains under this cloud of suspicion. Those implications conceivably stretch well beyond the shores of the United States.
Some have suggested that the U.S. government’s charges against Huawei are prompted more by protectionism than by legitimate concerns about national security. With the existing evidence against Huawei classified, there’s no way for the public, in the U.S. or elsewhere, to make an informed judgment.