Qualcomm granted a license to sell 4G chips to Huawei

20-11-2020 | By Robin Mitchell

Recently, Qualcomm announced that it would be selling 4G chips to Huawei after receiving a license from the US government. Why has this been allowed, what has Huawei said about the recent election, and why should the next US government be cautious about enabling Chinese technology into infrastructure?

Qualcomm Obtains Trade License

For the electronics industry, one of the biggest impacts the Trump presidency has had is the trade wars between the US and China, and the pressure the US government has put over its allies to prevent Chinese hardware from being implemented into infrastructure. Now that the recent 2020 election may see a new presidency under Biden, the world wonders what the policy of the next government may be.

Not only was Chinese hardware prevented from being used in infrastructure, but key technologies were also banned from being licensed to or owned by China. For example, mobile phone technology, including SoCs and processors sold by Qualcomm, was prevented from being sold to Chinese companies in an attempt to stifle their ability to advance their mobile telecommunications. Other technologies that China received limited access to also include semiconductor development software, semiconductor hardware, and manufacturing equipment. 

However, Qualcomm has recently announced that the US government has granted them a license to sell some of their products to Huawei, including some 4G products. Huawei has been a customer of Qualcomm for a long time, and use their devices in low-end Huawei products (however, high-end devices use ICs developed by Huawei themselves). While this may seem like a positive step for Huawei, the introduction of 5G is seeing many customers move to the new platform, and the devices provided by Qualcomm will not allow for this advance as they are 4G only.

Huawei Wants a Change in UK Policy

Recently, Huawei also announced that the UK should rethink its policy on Chinese products and services now that the Trump presidency is drawing to a close. According to Huawei, the use of Huawei in UK infrastructure would not only allow the UK to advance its 5G capabilities quickly but also help the North/South divide by bringing in modern, high-speed internet connections.

Huawei is correct on several points in their announcement. Firstly, the North/South divide will not be fixed by Highspeed Rail 2, but instead with the use of ultrafast, low latency internet connections between the North and South. Such a technological feat would easily enable remote work, and thus allow workers to live anywhere in the UK; not just within a 2-hour zone around London. 

Secondly, Huawei is also correct when they say that we pressured the UK government to ban Huawei equipment from their infrastructure; this was a move that the UK government was hesitant on as it is desperate for 5G infrastructure to enable modern technologies. However, Huawei is wrong as to why the Trump presidency wanted to bring in the ban on Chinese equipment, and like many, continue to fail to see the issues faced with Chinese equipment in key infrastructure.

China’s Long History of Industrial Espionage and Spying

It should be stated that most, if not all countries, do some degree of spying. In fact, the act of spying is generally accepted as a part of life, and when a spy is found out, people are not too surprised. However, it is a practice that goes unnoticed, is always denied by all parties, and when done, is generally hard to find out about. However, one nation, in particular, is notorious for its attempts to constantly, and repeatedly engage in cyberattacks, espionage, and theft; China.

While there have been many instances, two, in particular, stand out; the spying on the African Union headquarters, and the integration of small backdoor chips into server systems.

The African Union headquarters allows for the many leaders of Africa to discuss many matters ranging from political, economic, and social. However, the buildings IT infrastructure was paid for by China which was seen as a good gesture at the time, but five years later, it became clear why this was done. According to experts at the site, they noticed that vast amounts of confidential information was being streamed from the servers every night to a server in China. Since then, the AU has replaced the servers and also refused Chinese help to configure the new servers.

The second incident of interest is when security experts performed checks on the hardware used by Elemental Technologies as they were going to be teaming up with Amazon to provide video streaming capabilities. Upon careful checking, the team discovered a tiny part on the video processing card that was not specified in the original design. To the team’s horror, the chip was a backdoor system that allows for specific code to be injected, and from there allow a remote attacker entry into the system. While China has strongly denied that they had any involvement, it is most likely a military device instructed by high-ranking officials to be fitted to server equipment. 

Why China, as a nation, engages in such activities so often cannot be stated for sure. However, it may come from the fact that all companies are obliged to have members of the Communist Party in their organisation. At the same time, the Chinese government at any time can call upon a company for information on any of its customers, and must do as the Chinese government asks. Such level of control allows the Chinese government to encourage widespread espionage and IP theft which benefits both the company and the country as a whole.

Some people believe the Trump policies on China come from a desire to make America an isolationist nation which is not dependent on foreign trade. However, if one carefully examines the history of China and its involvement with industrial espionage, it becomes apparent that utilising Chinese hardware in modern infrastructure is a potentially dangerous move. Thus, users should think twice before using software or hardware developed in China.

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By Robin Mitchell

Robin Mitchell is an electronic engineer who has been involved in electronics since the age of 13. After completing a BEng at the University of Warwick, Robin moved into the field of online content creation, developing articles, news pieces, and projects aimed at professionals and makers alike. Currently, Robin runs a small electronics business, MitchElectronics, which produces educational kits and resources.