President Donald “Tweeter-in-Chief” Trump uses his cellphone to share his erratic thoughts, moving from controversy to controversy. He’s even spooked the markets when broadcasting his pet economic theories.
But for the users of the world’s second-bestselling handset, he’s now become a gremlin in the phone. On Sunday, citing concerns that the Chinese telecommunications giant Huawei could be exploited for “espionage” by its government, the Trump administration issued an executive order blocking Huawei from buying American products without United States approval.
Internet giant Google announced, in response to the ban, that it would partially cut off Huawei’s access to its Android operating system. This means Huawei will only be able to use the open source version of Android, but not Google apps such as Gmail, Maps, YouTube, the Play Store or Google Assistant. The ban will mainly apply to new phones, not ones already in the market.
The Chinese telecommunications company is the largest supplier of electronic components and the second-largest cellphone manufacturer, with its global cellphone share topping 17%, according to Forbes. Its products are used at various stages of the supply chain across the world.
Huawei also uses US suppliers extensively. Perhaps because of the degree to which cellphone manufacture has been globally integrated, on the day after the ban was announced, the Trump administration said Huawei would get a 90-day reprieve.
With a turnover of $105-billion last year and 180 000 employees, Huawei is not only one of the top players in the industry, it is also the leader in developing 5G, the fifth generation cellular technology. Tech website The Verge reported that the US is in the process of building its next-generation 5G network.
According to The Washington Post, Huawei’s blacklisting followed the US government’s concerns that China’s government will be able to get access to and control infrastructure through the company’s 5G networks.
Peter Draper, executive director at the Institute for International Trade, says the ban is “not out of keeping with the Trump administration’s behaviour”, but is “quite an unusual escalation”. The US-China trade conflict “is really about who controls the fourth industrial revolution industries of the future, of which telecommunications is a key part, and technology in particular”.
Trump’s recent actions are more of a case of “managing the competition”, says Draper. “The US administration is all about managing trade, whether it is trying to impose quotas on Canada’s metal imports or taking up key competitors to US mobile phones companies.
“It is particularly concerned about Chinese access to cutting-edge US technology, for instance, integrated circuits that are embodied on a range of mobile phones,” adds Draper.
Dominic White, chief technology officer at SensePost, an independent consulting agency, says: “The public has no evidence of espionage other than the US claims. The stated claim is that they may not want to share intelligence that could compromise their countersurveillance of Huawei, but without presented evidence it does leave us wondering how much is driven by intelligence, engineering or politics.”
Iginio Gagliardone, a professor in media studies at the University of the Witwatersrand, says the trade war between China and the US could lead to African countries having to choose sides. “Developing countries have so far been able to choose different partners they want to work with in implementing different components of their information infrastructure. They could work with Huawei, or Cisco, or Ericsson, mixing and matching different approaches.”
A ban of the kind imposed by the US, asking specific countries to align themselves with one or another partner, could be a game-changer, says Gagliardone. “Until now, claims of a cold war over the internet seemed exaggerated. This move may make this scenario more likely.”
He says the Trump administration’s approach is a blunt indication of how the US has given up on a vision of communication without borders, preferring a more parochial view of the internet, which is in line with Trump’s “America First” policy rolled out in other sectors.
“This, paradoxically, can progressively turn into a favour to China. Contrary to the original idea of a global internet, the Chinese administration has been supporting the idea of many sovereign internets. The move against Huawei reinforces China’s global vision of a balkanised internet, against the very idea that originally emerged in the US,” says Gagliardone.
Statcounter, an independent web analytics specialist, says Huawei is the second-most popular cellular device in South Africa, with a market share of 23.2%. Samsung is first with 43.84% and Apple third with 14.65%.
After the announcement of the US blacklisting, South Africans with Huawei phones were concerned about what lies ahead for their phone’s ability to access Google’s updates through Google’s Playstore. Huawei South Africa, via Twitter, assured users that it will continue to provide “security updates and after-sales services to all its existing Huawei users covering those that have been sold or still in stock globally. Huawei will continue to build a safe and sustainable software ecosystem in order to provide for the best experience.”
The US cellphone war also has potential implications for South Africa. Huawei has partnered with Vodacom to roll out 5G technology.
Vodacom says it will “review the situation as it evolves’’.
“Vodacom’s network in South Africa is 5G ready and we will launch 5G services in South Africa as soon as we are able to gain access to 5G spectrum,” said a Vodacom spokesperson.
The Independent Communications Authority of South Africa grants this access.
Last year, Vodacom partnered with Huawei to roll out 5G in Lesotho.
Tshegofatso Mathe is an Adamela Trust business reporter at the M&G