HONG KONG — When top tech minds sat down to set the global standards underpinning today’s cellphone networks, China was left largely on the sidelines. Companies in the West owned much of the crucial technology, and they prospered.
Now, as the world prepares for a new generation of mobile internet that could let you download a feature-length movie in mere seconds, a Chinese company is determined to lead, putting it at the center of an international fight over the technology’s future.
Huawei, the giant maker of telecommunications equipment, has been pouring money into research on 5G, or fifth-generation, wireless networks and patenting key technologies. It has hired experts from foreign rivals and pushed them to guide international groups that are deciding the technical standards for tomorrow’s wireless gear.
But the company has also been a top concern of Washington officials. It was effectively shut out of the United States after a 2012 congressional report said Beijing could use Huawei’s equipment to spy on Americans. And this week, a United States Treasury official flagged Huawei’s 5G push as the American government investigates the proposed takeover of Qualcomm, a San Diego-based chip maker, by Broadcom, a rival based in Singapore.
In a letter, the official, Aimen N. Mir, deputy assistant secretary for investment security, said that being bought by Broadcom would sap Qualcomm’s ability to influence worldwide standards for 5G. Broadcom’s statements suggest that it would slash investment in research and development, Mr. Mir wrote, and focus instead on short-term profitability.
As a result, he wrote, Chinese companies such as Huawei could get the technological edge.
“A shift to Chinese dominance in 5G would have substantial negative national security consequences for the United States,” Mr. Mir wrote. Broadcom sought to assuage the concerns on Wednesday by pledging to increase research spending.
With 5G standards due to be completed this year, the outcome of the Broadcom deal may not affect the complicated protocols themselves much. One major set of standards was already delivered in December.
It is clear, though, that Huawei, which is not state-run, wants to drive the global charge toward 5G — and that Washington would rather it didn’t.
Huawei has evolved, over the past three decades, from a seller of cheap telephone switches to a powerhouse partner to cell networks around the world. Yet until recently, it had lagged behind Western companies like Qualcomm, Intel, Nokia and Ericsson in taking part in wireless standard-setting,…
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