Chip ban on China – Huawei’s latest phone doesn’t include 5G

24-08-2021 | By Robin Mitchell

Recently, Huawei released their latest range of Smartphone products, the P50, but these devices lack 5G capabilities. Why has the US placed trade restrictions on China, what has caused the newest devices to lack 5G, and how will this changing technology look forward?

The US vs China trade war

The past few years have seen China and the US face off in an intense trade war, with each side placing tariffs on imports from each other. However, it has only been recently that the US has taken the trade war further and limited the export of crucial products relating to security, defence, and infrastructure.

One of these was AI technologies that the Chinese government could potentially use when identifying citizens might be breaching human rights. The Chinese government responded by not allowing Chinese companies to export Chinese-developed AI technologies to the US. Soon after, the US decided to rally significant countries worldwide, including the UK, to ban Chinese hardware in crucial infrastructure projects such as cellular networks, including 5G.

The trade war against China by the US relates to the weakening position of American manufacturing compared to other countries. Simply put, countries such as China can manufacture products at a much lower cost, steal IP without facing any significant consequences, and provide unjustifiable working conditions.

However, the restriction on technology comes from a darker concern by the west. China is well known to deploy mass surveillance against its population, and it has been found to spy on other nations and organizations, including the African Union. Furthermore, Chinese law states that all companies operating in China need to have an appointed member of the communist party whose sole responsibility is to ensure that the company works in the governments best interests.

This has led to the fear that any critical hardware developed and/or manufactured in China could lead to the Chinese having backdoor access. For example, if all 5G infrastructure was developed by Huawei, there is a chance that government officials would integrate backdoor access to monitor traffic and disable the network. This would provide China with a critical advantage economically, socially, and militarily which is entirely unacceptable.

Huawei latest smartphones do not integrate 5G

When it comes to mobile technology, China is particularly well known for providing high-speed 5G connectivity. For example, China is known to have at least 260 million terminal connections and 792,000 5G base stations. Therefore, one would expect that all next-generation smartphones developed in China would be integrated with 5G capabilities.

However, Huawei recently announced its latest smartphone series, the P50 and 5G is not included. The best cellular connection possible with the P50 is 4G and integrates a 50MP camera, a 4360mAh battery, and the latest mobile operating system Harmony OS2.

The reason why the P50 does not include 5G is a direct result of the US trade restrictions on 5G technology. Ironically, China has spent the past few years upgrading their entire network to operate with 5G. However, because Qualcomm holds the licensing and patent rights over 5G, they can no longer get new 5G SoCs for mobile platforms. The SoC used in the P50 is the Snapdragon 888 4K, while the pro version of the P50 will utilize the 4G Kirin 9000.

How will restrictions affect China in the future, and what does this mean about patents?

Under normal circumstances, I would call out on Qualcomm and other companies that slip patents into standards. For example, Qualcomm using their patent technology in a globally accepted 5G standard means that anyone wanting to develop cellular technologies is required to pay Qualcomm some percentage. However, Qualcomm has patents in cellular technologies means that the US can control which countries can implement it by restricting its sale.

The US restricting China’s capabilities does have its advantages; it will provide better protection to western nations while encouraging China to abandon its practices of espionage and theft. The use of Qualcomm patents in 5G together with the ability for the US to prevent its application supports the need for open standards that do not come with licenses or royalties.

For example, OpenVPN is a radio network that uses open-source technology freely available to all. There is no need for proprietary equipment to use different technologies, and such systems can expand to meet demand as needed. A cellular network based on an open standard would allow any device to connect while circumventing technology restrictions. RISC-V is an example of an open standard that China is now exploring to get around restrictions on ARM sales.

Overall, China needs to hear the message that the rest of the world is telling it. But, if pushed too far, China will create its own technology standards, which could spell disaster for the technological world. Remember that engineers have worked for years to develop open standards and protocols that allow systems to easily communicate.


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.