By Douglas Busvine
FRANKFURT (Reuters) - The telecoms industry has called on European governments to join mobile operators in establishing a testing regime to protect network security without having to resort to the disruptive step of excluding vendors from the market.
The initiative by the GSMA, which represents 800 operators worldwide, comes as the United States steps up pressure on its allies to ban China's Huawei on national security grounds.
Operators warn that such a step would disrupt the supply of equipment, increase costs to them and their customers, delay the rollout of next-generation 5G services by years, and potentially hobble existing networks.
"Such significant consequences, intended or not, are entirely avoidable," the GSMA said in a statement issued just over two weeks before it hosts its annual Mobile World Congress in Barcelona.
The industry fest, to be attended by more than 100,000 visitors, is also expected to feature a closed-doors discussion of telecoms CEOs of the risks to the industry that would arise if governments ban Huawei, sources said.
Huawei, an associate member of the GSMA, is traditionally one of the biggest exhibitors in Barcelona. The global market leader in networks and number two in smartphones is expected to launch a new handset on the eve of the event.
The GSMA said it was assembling a task force of European operators to identify ways to enhance existing testing regimes run by individual operators, by third-party laboratories or in partnership with 3GPP, the 5G standardisation body.
It recommended that governments and mobile operators work together to agree on an assurance and testing regime for Europe "so that it ensures confidence in network security while maintaining competition in the supply of network equipment."
The initiative parallels similar calls by Europe's largest mobile operator, Deutsche Telekom, to strengthen Germany's testing and compliance regime without having to resort to a blanket ban on Chinese vendors.
Deutsche Telekom said: "We welcome this move and think it’s good that the GSMA was able to find a common position." Spain's Telefonica said the GSMA's stance fully reflected its own position.
It marks the biggest step by the industry to avert a repeat of Australia's ban on Huawei - the networks leader with a global market share of 28 percent - following U.S. warnings that its equipment could come with 'back doors' that would expose it to cyber espionage.
Washington has also argued that Chinese vendors are subject to a National Intelligence Law that requires organisations and citizens to collaborate in espionage efforts.
The European Union is considering proposals that would amount to a de facto ban on Huawei, senior officials say, adding to mounting international pressure on the Shenzhen-based company.
Huawei has denied the U.S. claims, while European operators argue there is no evidence to suggest that the Huawei equipment they use in their networks has ever been used for nefarious ends.
There is a great deal at stake: The GSMA estimates that mobile operators will invest between $300 billion and $500 billion by 2025 in the rollout of 5G services in Europe that range from connected factories to super-fast broadband internet.
"As European policy makers consider ways to further secure network infrastructure, we urge them not to lose focus on all relevant policy objectives – security, competition, innovation and consumer impact," the GSMA said.
"This requires a fact-based and risk-based approach."
(Additional reporting by Isla Binnie; Editing by Mark Potter)