Over the next four days, about 100,000 people in Barcelona are expected to traipse through the halls of Mobile World Congress, one of the tech industry’s biggest events. All the biggest players in the world use it to showcase new products.
One company really stands out this year: China’s Huawei. Walking out of the Barcelona airport, there’s a Huawei hospitality stand. The company’s branding dots the city. The lanyards conference attendees wear around their necks are decorated with the Huawei name.
There’s a good reason everyone is focused on Huawei, one of the world’s largest makers of telecom equipment.
Huawei is a crucial part of China’s efforts to advance superfast 5G wireless networks and today is caught in a life or death battle with the US government.
The United States claims that Huawei poses a potential national security threat. Last month, US prosecutors revealed criminal charges against the company, alleging that Huawei stole trade secrets and worked to skirt US sanctions on Iran.
Huawei strongly denies the claims and is trying hard to persuade the world to use its 5G technology and not cave to pressure from Washington.
“This is not something that should be decided by politics,” Huawei’s chairman Guo Ping said on Sunday, ahead of the formal start of Mobile World Congress.
Guo said he was hoping “independent sovereign states” will make “independent decisions based on their own understanding of the situation and will not just listen to someone else’s order.”
The US government is trying to convince its allies to shun Huawei equipment, which it says could be used by the Chinese government for spying. The company vehemently denies that claim.
“Just because you are from a certain country doesn’t mean your equipment is not secure,” Guo said. He added that Huawei must abide by Chinese law and the laws of countries where it operates. “Huawei will never, and dare not, and cannot violate any regulations,” he said.
Vice President Mike Pence described Huawei as a “threat.” Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has warned other countries that using Huawei would make it more difficult for the United States to “partner” with them.
Europe is one of the battlegrounds, which is why the company isn’t shying away from pouring resources into the event.
The United Kingdom and Germany, two hugely attractive markets for Huawei, are reviewing whether to allow Huawei to be part of their future 5G networks. The countries are weighing the strong warnings coming from Washington against their business interests. Huawei is seen as a clear leader in 5G technology. Ditching it could mean falling behind on crucial innovation.
“Business communities in key swing markets for Huawei, such as the United Kingdom and Germany, appear increasingly concerned about the impact of an outright ban on broader commercial relations with Beijing,” said Paul Triolo, the head of geo-technology at global research firm Eurasia Group.
Mobile World Congress is organized by GSMA, a global lobby representing more than 750 network operators. GSMA has urged European policymakers not to ban Huawei and when deciding who will build Europe’s 5G networks. It urged countries to take “a fact-based and risk-based approach” in a statement that the trade group representing the US wireless industry did not endorse.
Guo, the Huawei chairman, alluded to the high stakes and referred to a tweet by President Donald Trump, who said he wanted the United States to have “5G, and even 6G” capability.
“He said the US needs faster networks and he has realized the US is behind and I think his message is clear and correct,” Guo said. “Huawei has barely existed in the US networks,” he added.
Also on Sunday, Huawei unveiled its new device, the Mate X, which is both foldable and 5G capable — touching on two of the big innovation themes that will dominate this week’s events.