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Huawei’s Rivals Should Be Happy They’re Not American

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(Bloomberg Opinion) -- The advent of 5G networks has accentuated U.S. concerns about lacking a domestic rival to the mighty Huawei Technologies Co. Ltd.

Yet the Chinese telecoms equipment maker’s main competitors, Ericsson AB and Nokia Oyj, have good reason to be relieved that they are domiciled in Sweden and Finland respectively. President Donald Trump’s administration has spent much of the past two years cajoling other countries into banning gear made by Huawei from their networks. Had the two Nordic firms been U.S.-based, they would likely have been subject to retaliatory bans in China.

That would have had dramatic implications for their earnings. Ericsson’s northeast Asia region, which includes China, was the only market to deliver meaningful growth for the company in the three months through September, with revenue jumping 39% to 8.8 billion Krona ($1 billion). Group sales would otherwise have declined. We’ll see what happens with Nokia when it reports third-quarter earnings on Oct. 29.

What’s more, Nokia and Ericsson will benefit from Huawei’s exclusion from some markets, though the effect is likely to be limited. So far, just a handful of countries have imposed a ban on the Chinese vendor, such as the U.S., U.K., Japan and Australia. Although others such as France are restricting Huawei, the greater prize is, for now, retaining access to China.

Besides, Ericsson may yet suffer from geopolitical fallout. On Tuesday, Sweden banned Huawei and ZTE Corp., another Chinese supplier, from its 5G networks by 2025, citing security concerns. China has intimated that it may retaliate. Targeting Ericsson could well be an option. The Swedish firm’s existing Chinese market share would make a reprisal ban costlier and time-consuming, but such a move isn’t impossible.

Should tensions increase, the arrival of mass-market 5G smartphones in other parts of the world may come to the rescue. While China’s heavy investment in the next-generation networks has been driven by state industrial policy, the lack of consumer demand has made it harder for carriers elsewhere to justify the outlay. For all of the marketing hoopla championing 5G, coverage remains pitiful outside China, which had installed 400,000 5G base stations by the end of June and expects to have 650,000 by the end of the year. Carriers in Europe and the U.S. are yet to reveal exactly how many they have installed, but it’s far fewer.

But the introduction of 5G-enabled handsets, such as the new lineup of iPhones that ships next month, should foster demand for the new networks in these regions. That’s good news for Ericsson and Nokia, who may finally start to enjoy more growth beyond China.

American tech giants have enjoyed incomparable growth over the past decade. But when it comes to network equipment, there’s an advantage to geopolitical neutrality.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Alex Webb is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering Europe's technology, media and communications industries. He previously covered Apple and other technology companies for Bloomberg News in San Francisco.

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