Don’t ignore Huawei’s ban on buying US components

While everyone is focusing on the ban on selling in the US, the ban on buying US components is a much more interesting chapter of the Huawei saga.

President Donald Trump has dropped the economic dirty bomb on China and it’s dominating the headlines. Although Huawei, or China, are not mentioned in the text, the Executive Order is clearly a move to stall progress made in the telco arena. China is mounting a challenge to the US dominance in the TMT arena, and this should be viewed as a move to combat that.

There are clearly other reasons for the order, but this should not be ignored. The security argument, albeit an accusation thrown without the burden of concrete evidence, is a factor, but never forget about the capitalist dream which underpins US society.

However, although most are focusing on Huawei’s inability to sell components, products and services in the US market, there might be an argument the ban on purchasing US components, products and services is more important, impactful and influential.

“This action by the Commerce Department’s Bureau of Industry and Security, with the support of the President of the United States, places Huawei, a Chinese owned company that is the largest telecommunications equipment producer in the world, on the Entity List,” said Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross. “This will prevent American technology from being used by foreign owned entities in ways that potentially undermine US national security or foreign policy interests.”

While we will focus on the ban on purchasing US components, products and services for this article, it is worth noting the ban on Huawei selling in the US will have an impact.

Rural telcos in the US have mostly been against any ban on Chinese companies. In October 2018, Huawei made a filing with the FCC arguing its support for rural telcos is underpinning the fight against the digital divide and a ban would be disastrous for those subscribers. Michael Beehn, CEO of MobileNation, was one of those who argued against the ban, suggesting the cost-effectiveness of Huawei allowed his firm to operate. Without the advantage of nationwide scale, these organizations will always struggle when the price of networks is forced north.

While the US is a massive market, with huge opportunities to maximise profits, not being able to sell in the US is not going to have a significant impact on Huawei. Its customers are the rural telcos not the national ones. Huawei has not managed to secure any major contracts with the big four, therefore it is missing out on something which it never had. Huawei has still managed to grow sales to $105 billion without the US, therefore we believe this ban is not going to be a gamechanger.

However, it is the ban on purchasing US components, products and services which we want to focus on here.

Huawei is not outrightly banned from using US technologies and services, however, those companies who wish to work with the dominant telco vendor will have to seek permission to do so beforehand. The US can now effectively how strategically it wants to twist the knife already dug deep into Huawei’s metaphorical chest.

Although we’re not too sure how this will play out, Huawei’s business could be severely dented by this move.

Huawei recognises 92 companies around the world as core suppliers to the business. It will have thousands of suppliers for various parts of the business, but these 92 are considered the most important to the success of operations. And 33 of them are US companies.

Some are small, some are niche, some are more generic, and some are technology giants. The likes of Qualcomm, Intel and Broadcom all have interests in keeping the US/Chinese relationship sweet, though more niche companies like Skyworks Solutions, Lumentum and Qorvo have much more skin in the game. Firms like NeoPhotonics, who are reliant on Huawei for 46% of its revenues, might well struggle to survive.

Huawei will be able to survive this move, it has been preparing for such an outcome, but you have to wonder what impact it will have on its products and credibility.

HiSilicon, the Huawei-owned semiconductor business, has been ramping up its capabilities to move more of its chip supply chain in-house, while the firm has reportedly been improving the geographical diversity of its international supply chain. According to the South China Morning Post, not only has Huawei been moving more operations in-house, it has also been stockpiling US components in the event of the procurement doomsday event.

A similar ban on procuring US components, products and services was placed on ZTE last year and it almost crippled the firm. Operations were forced to a standstill due to the reliance on US technology. Huawei has never been as dependent on the US, though it seems the lessons were learned from this incident.

The big question is what impact a ban would have on the quality of its products.

Huawei might preach the promise of its own technology and the new suppliers it will seek/has sought, but there is a reason these 33 US companies were chosen in the first place. Either there is/was a financial benefit to Huawei in these relationships, or they were chosen because they were best in class.

Huawei is a commercial organization after all, it wants to make the best products for the best price. There will certainly have been compromises make during these selections, either paying more for better or sacrificing some quality for commercial benefits, and having to make changes will have an impact. Huawei, and its customers, will have fingers and toes crossed there is no material impact on the business.

The other aspect to consider is disruption to operations. ZTE found out how detrimental dependence on a single country can be, and while Huawei has mitigated some of this impact, it remains to be seen how much pain could be felt should the ban be fully enforced. Might it mean Huawei is unable to scale operations in-line with customer deployment ambitions? Could competitors benefit through these limitations? We don’t know for the moment.

The ban on selling in the US might sound better when reeling off headlines, but don’t forget about Huawei’s supply chain. We think there is much more of a risk here.