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5G Explained

Part One: Technology and Infrastructure

UPDATED: Feb. 23, 2021
PUBLISHED: JAN. 22, 2020

The discussion surrounding the ongoing development of the fifth generation of cellular networks, or “5G,” has invoked intense anticipation, deep-seated fear, and general confusion. 5G has the power to be a transformative technology, but it is widely misunderstood. Barclays’ polling found that only 28 percent of businesses know what 5G is and what it could do. This gap creates a competitive advantage for companies that are better able to understand 5G and craft effective 5G strategies. In our 5G series, FP Analytics analyzes three distinct aspects of 5G: Technology and Infrastructure, The Global Competitive Landscape, and National Security, which are essential to fully understanding the evolving industry and the range of commercial and geopolitical implications.

Executive Summary

5G technology is set to revolutionize the Internet as we know it. It will increase network speeds, enable the Internet of Things (IoT) by bringing billions of more devices online, and advance new technologies such as artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning. Despite this transformative impact, the majority of businesses still do not know what 5G is and what it could do.

The “race to 5G” has been widely publicized (and the state of development wildly embellished), but the fundamental issues and realities underpinning the transition to 5G technology are still widely misunderstood. Building 5G networks requires extensive global coordination among governments, private companies, and regulatory bodies. It is an ongoing process that will unfold over the next decade at different paces in different countries. As this process occurs, understanding the stages of 5G development in different markets and accurately timing investments will be crucial for businesses. 5G technology will bring broad benefits and widespread risks globally, but there will likely not be one clear-cut winner. Nevertheless, intense geopolitical competition surrounding 5G is developing, and the results of this competition will have long-lasting and far-reaching effects.

While innovation on 4G networks was largely dominated by the United States and other Western countries, since 2012, China has made a coordinated effort to dominate the build-out of 5G networks and determine operating standards around the world. Chinese omnipresence in 5G infrastructure rollout, embodied in its national telecommunications leader, Huawei, has raised security concerns for Western and other countries and has moved the 5G debate from the technical realm into geopolitics.

China’s push to lead in 5G infrastructure development, combined with long-running U.S. concerns over Huawei’s alleged intellectual property theft, prompted President Donald Trump’s signing of an executive order banning Huawei from accessing U.S. supply chains in May of 2019. The move sparked a direct confrontation between the U.S. and China over 5G, putting the two countries directly at odds over 5G technology platforms and forcing other countries to take sides. The U.S. has succeeded in pushing Huawei out of a number of key EU markets, including the UK and France, but Huawei’s omnipresence throughout most of the developing world continues to drive conflict.

Huawei’s competitive position has diminished since the start of 2020, but it still holds some formidable advantages. Huawei’s 2019 revenue was four times greater than Nokia’s or Ericsson’s, and it owns more patents on essential telecom technology than any of its competitors. Further, Huawei played an essential role in the development of 4G networks globally and has its equipment and services already deployed in 170 countries—countries banning Huawei face a high cost for removing its existing equipment. Despite falling behind competitors in signed 5G contracts, Huawei will remain a major player in global 5G development, setting the stage for a prolonged international struggle and potentially fracturing the future 5G Internet into two separate spheres.

In FP Analytics’ three-part Power Map Series, 5G Explained, we break down the key issues surrounding the development of 5G networks and the confrontation between the U.S. and China over 5G by:

  • Identifying the key players in 5G technology and infrastructure development;
  • Detailing the global competitive landscape, including issues along supply chains, influence on standards, and forces driving investment decisions in markets around the world;
  • Pinpointing key national security concerns, many of which are currently going unaddressed;
  • Breaking down the emerging geopolitical competition over 5G; and
  • Cataloguing a range of risks and opportunities for businesses.

This FP Analytics Power Map provides the most comprehensive assessment of the issues surrounding 5G to date and provides critical 5G analysis across the technical, economic, geopolitical, and security realms. Beyond the hype and hyperbole, this comprehensive overview provides businesses with an indispensable tool to help better understand the risks and opportunities with 5G.

Subscribe to FP Insider below or contact us at for full access to 5G Explained.


Strictly speaking, 5G is a set of technical ground rules that will define the workings of that cellular network, including the radio frequencies used and how various components like computer chips and antennas will handle radio signals and exchange data. However, the full scope of 5G networks will encompass governments, telecom providers, telecom equipment manufactures, and regulatory bodies. Rebuilding cellular networks to the 5G standard will increase speeds and reduce latency, enabling the “Internet of Things,” including Internet-connected household appliances, self-driving cars, smart infrastructure, and other devices that rely on high-speed Internet connectivity to operate and communicate. In short, it will further enable and accelerate the digitalization of economies globally.

While innovations on 4G networks were largely dominated by the U.S. and other Western countries, since 2012, China has made a coordinated effort to lead in building out 5G networks and setting operating standards around the world. Chinese omnipresence in 5G infrastructure rollout, embodied in its national telecom leader, Huawei, has raised security concerns for Western and other countries and has moved the 5G debate from the technical realm into geopolitics.

Despite popular rhetoric, the development of 5G technology is not a race that will have one clear winner. Instead, there will be a wide range of benefits and risks that will be distributed across companies, governments, and individuals. With the increasing digitalization of our economies, societies, and defense systems, the stakes could not be higher. To mitigate risks and capitalize on emerging opportunities, stakeholders need to understand the distinct components, the scope of 5G’s global impact, the potential roadblocks that may impede 5G’s development, and when and where it is strategic to engage. The key and nuanced elements of these issues are broken down in our series.

Laying the Groundwork: Foundational Aspects of 5G Technology and Infrastructure Equipment

Building 5G networks requires extensive physical infrastructure, both new and upgraded, that is currently being built, but there are only a small number of companies globally that are able to supply the necessary equipment to build these networks.

Key Takeaways

5G networks will increase data transmission speeds by up to 100x that of 4G networks

Construction of 5G networks will require an estimated investment of over $2.7 trillion globally in 2020 alone

  • Need for Speed

    5G networks stand to increase data transmission speeds by up to 100x that of 4G, requiring a vastly more extensive physical radio access network (RAN) infrastructure than previous generations used. In order to reliably transmit data over high-frequency radio waves, 5G requires broad-based construction of small cell towers to be placed within 500 feet of each other, requiring capital investment from mobile providers across all network domains, including spectrum, RAN, transmission, and core telecommunications networks.

  • Near-Term Investment Requirements Immense

    Building this network will require an estimated investment of over $2.7 trillion globally in 2020, which is expected to increase infrastructure capex by 20 to 50 percent per year, with costs varying considerably by market. These costs will be borne by telecom providers and governments seeking to capitalize on the digitalization of global economies it promises to enable.

  • What’s at Stake

    Seeking a first-mover advantage, telecom providers are scrambling to be the first to lay the foundation for fully operational 5G networks and lock in market share. Global revenues from 5G network infrastructure reached a forecasted $8.1 billion in 2020 alone, according to Gartner. The potential to capitalize on these profits and influence subsequent operation on the system has led to an intense competition among global telecom equipment providers, the outcome of which will determine which companies and countries capture the greatest benefits and profits from 5G.

The Breakdown
How 5G Networks Function
How 5G Networks Function
5G networks are complex ecosystems that will span the entire globe.
Click to see how they work

The infrastructure for wireless networks is constructed through two forms of physical infrastructure: a core network and a radio access network (RAN). The core network transports data and connects the various parts of the radio access network. Then, the radio access network connects wireless or satellite devices to the core network, acting as an in-between transmitter for data and end-user devices such as mobile phones and computers. While core networks are built in fixed facilities, RANs need to cover expansive geographic areas.

RANs will account for the majority of the increase in infrastructure investment, jumping from an estimated 62 percent of global telecom providers’ capex in 2018 to 86 percent in 2025, predominantly due to the need for 5G networks to build additional radio towers.

4G RANs connect end-user devices to telecom core networks through macro cell radio towers, which transmit data across low-frequency radio waves covering areas ranging from 22 to 45 miles, while 5G networks will transmit orders of magnitude greater data on top of 4G networks and will incorporate a wider range of radio spectrum frequencies. Given that high-frequency radio waves cannot travel through walls and only cover an area of two to four city blocks, telecom companies still need to build out thousands of additional macro cell towers and tens of thousands of small cell towers. Despite widespread media coverage suggesting that 5G is here, the reality is that this build-out is in the very early stages in most markets and will take years to implement.

Core Network Infrastructure

The core network is the backbone of a telecommunications network. It routes and transports data and connects the different parts of the radio access network. In 4G networks, the core network routes data primarily through hardware systems. In 5G, the majority of the core networks routing functions will be moved into a cloud-based software system.

Radio Access Network (RAN)

RANs are systems of radio cell towers that connect mobile devices to the physical telecommunications network. The RAN in 4G consists of larger macro cell towers that carry signals over long distances. 5G networks will consist of a denser, more complex network of macro cell and small cell radio towers that will carry signals over a wider range of radio frequencies.

How Networks are Built - Process
The Process

The core network acts as the hub that directs data throughout the telecommunications network. The radio access network provides wide-ranging cellular coverage that allows devices to connect to the core network and allows data to be sent and received across the entire network.

How Networks are Built
Macro Cell Towers

Macro cell towers transmit lower-frequency radio waves. Lower-frequency waves can travel over long distances and through walls, allowing macro cell towers to be placed far apart from each other.

Small Cell Towers

Small cell towers transmit higher-frequency radio waves. Higher-frequency waves can only travel short distances and cannot penetrate walls. In order toreliably transmit data, small cell towers need to be placed in close proximity to each other.

Internet-Connected Devices

Devices such as smart phones, computers, and other smart devices (such as machinery, or household appliances) generate data that is then transmitted through the telecommunications network via the RAN.


Rights to Operate Are Defining the Playing Field—Private vs. State-Owned Telecoms

Depending on the country, telecom companies are either private or state-owned. The varying structure of telecom companies across countries creates distinct challenges for rolling out 5G networks within and across different markets.

Key Takeaways

  • Coordination is Key

    Operating telecom networks requires close coordination among governments, telecom network operators, telecom equipment providers, and regulatory bodies. These actors must work together, often times across national borders, to build functioning 5G networks. Due to the scope of actors involved and their conflicting interests, 5G has the potential to create wide-ranging tensions. Countries that are better able to coordinate among these stakeholders have a clear advantage.

  • Telecoms’ Operating Structures Matter

    Vastly different operating structures by country will largely determine the ability of key actors to coordinate. For state-owned telecoms, the directives and incentives are aligned by nature, while privately owned companies need to reconcile conflicting interests as they work toward 5G.

  • What’s at Stake

    The ability to secure exclusive rights to operate will determine the rate at which development will be achieved—carrying implications for whether, when, and how companies and their competitors can participate in development. In each market, both the scope of infrastructure needed and the pace will vary; for 5G stakeholders, this means navigating uneven landscapes across markets and requires a tailored strategy for engagement.

The Breakdown
Telecom Structure and Why It Matters
Telecom Structure and Why It Matters
The distinction between private and state-owned telecom operators is a key determinant for the speed at which a country can roll out its 5G networks.
Click to learn why

5G RANs require extensive infrastructure to operate, with the International Data Corporation (IDC) estimating that over 2 million small cell transmitters will need to be built by 2021 for 5G in the U.S. alone, compared to only 200,000 total cell towers for past generations. To build out physical network systems, a telecom company must first secure the rights to exclusively operate on a specific frequency of radio spectrum. At the national level, governments control the use and allocation of spectrum, with varying dynamics for private versus state-owned telecoms:

  • Privately Owned Telecoms: In countries with private telecom companies, governments set the rules and regulations for telecom operators. Then, they auction off spectrum rights to the highest bidder. In these markets, there is a degree of separation between the governments and the telecom providers, with telecom providers responsible for the security and maintenance of their networks.
  • State-Owned Telecoms: In the case of a state-owned telecom company, the government frees up the spectrum for it to operate and maintains a full or partial stake in the company’s ongoing activities.

Once a telecom company has secured the exclusive rights to operate on a spectrum frequency, it then needs to transmit radio signals across the geographic area it wishes to cover. Telecom equipment providers such as Huawei, Nokia, and Ericsson provide telecom companies with the physical equipment they need to build out this network. Once networks are developed, third parties can send information through software code through those networks onto end-user devices such as cell phones, computers, and infrastructure sensors. Building 5G networks requires that telecom companies secure new higher-frequency spectrum to operate on, and then invest heavily in upgrading their physical network infrastructure to transmit data over this frequency.

In the case of private telecom companies, the company negotiates infrastructure contracts with telecom equipment providers such as Huawei, Nokia, and Ericsson on its own. For state-owned telecom companies, the government may negotiate these contracts for the company. The important difference is that countries with state-owned telecoms have a significant advantage in their ability to coordinate the key actors involved in building out 5G RANs. With state-owned telecoms, the government, the telecom provider, and regulators all act in coordination with a chosen telecom equipment provider with minimal pushback from any one actor. In countries where telecom providers are private, the key actors are often in competition with, or opposition to, one another.

Political and security concerns are impeding rollout across and within markets. In the U.S., despite the government ban on Huawei in May of 2019, rural telecom providers have already installed Huawei equipment across their 4G networks and are pushing to move forward with Huawei equipment largely based on price. In March of 2020, President Trump signed a law barring telecom companies from using U.S. subsidies to purchase Huawei equipment, dealing a blow to rural telecom providers in particular and laying the groundwork for an expensive and labor-intensive transition away from Huawei equipment. The situation is similar in the UK, where the British government reversed its previous stance on Huawei following a new review by the U.K.’s National Cyber Security Centre. In July 2020, the UK barred telecom companies from purchasing new Huawei equipment, and set a deadline of 2027 for UK telecoms to remove existing Huawei technology from their 5G networks. The UK ban is expected to delay the domestic development of 5G by two-to-three years and cost up to £2 billion. Meanwhile, telecom companies in private markets are pouring money into lobbying for favorable regulation on a range of technical, financial, and governance issues to gain competitive advantages, which will influence not only the operating environment but also the pace of development. In 2019, telecom companies spent $101 million on lobbying in the U.S. alone. These tensions among actors in private telecom markets are delaying 5G rollouts, while state-owned telecom markets are moving ahead relatively unencumbered.

Where Do We Stand Today?

In May of 2019, the U.S. issued a ban on Huawei equipment being used in domestic 5G markets and urged the rest of the world to follow suit. In May of 2020, on the anniversary of the U.S. banning Huawei equipment’s use in domestic 5G markets, the Trump administration extended the measure by way of the International Emergency Economic Powers Act; the ban is now in effect until May of 2021. The reality is that small carriers in the U.S. already use Huawei equipment, and U.S. companies rely on Huawei for large amounts of revenue. Still, the Trump administration urged other governments to follow its lead and ban or restrict Huawei in their markets. The U.S. ban was initially met with mixed enthusiasm—only Japan, Australia, and New Zealand complied, and the U.S. itself took over a full year before fully enforcing it.

However, since the initial ban, Huawei has come under increasing scrutiny from the EU, Canada, and India as well as Asian countries such as Taiwan and Singapore. Shifts in political relationships between China and the EU, Canada, and India over COVID-19, the detention of Canadian nationals, and border disputes along the Himalayas are threatening Huawei’s market dominance. In November of 2020, the UK formally banned Huawei, joining a growing number of EU countries taking action against the Chinese telecom. As of January 2021, at least thirty-six countries had banned Huawei or opted for alternative carriers to build their 5G networks. Despite increasing success in pushing Huawei out of telecom systems internationally, the U.S. still faces many obstacles to removing Huawei’s influence from 5G: small carriers in the U.S. already use Huawei equipment, U.S. companies rely on Huawei for large amounts of revenue, and there are still at least sixty countries globally still standing by Huawei.

Key Takeaways

Banning U.S. suppliers from working with Huawei could result in an estimated $11 billion annual loss for these companies

  • The U.S. Cannot “Win” on 5G Infrastructure

    Despite rapidly losing ground as the global leader in installed 5G infrastructure, Huawei maintains a strong position in the developing world and removing already installed infrastructure in countries intent on pushing Huawei out of their 5G networks still faces significant hurdles—as installed infrastructure would literally need to be ripped out of the ground. Tension and distrust between the US government and China has created a global controversy around Huawei, but the U.S. does not have domestic competitors that provide equipment on par.

  • The Game Is Being Played Mostly Among Other Players

    The 5G infrastructure contest is truly among the national champions of China, Sweden, and Finland, with South Korea and Japan emerging as potential players as well. The U.S. government has led the backlash against Huawei with mixed success, but the main commercial beneficiaries from a Huawei ban will be foreign competitors. Additionally, commercial realities make the dynamic of successfully banning Huawei more complex. U.S. suppliers are an integral part of Huawei’s supply chain – banning these suppliers from working with Huawei means an estimated $11 billion annual loss for U.S. companies and risks alienating US allies still relying on Huawei to build out their 5G networks.

  • What’s at Stake

    The US’ restrictive actions, including a ban on Huawei equipment and increasingly inflammatory rhetoric against Huawei on global 5G policy, have escalated tensions between the US and China. However, due to the U.S.’ waning global influence and absence of a coherent competitive strategy, Huawei is continuing to drive 5G infrastructure development globally. Even in the face of increased global scrutiny of both China and Huawei stemming from U.S. and EU security concerns and global tensions related to COVID-19, Huawei continued to be the 5G infrastructure equipment market leader in Q3 2020 by a sizeable margin (Huawei holds 30 percent of the market, 15 percent more than its closest competitor Nokia). The U.S.’s (and other countries’) ongoing efforts to restrict Huawei will carry implications not only for primary equipment competitors, but the myriad companies integrated in 5G infrastructure supply chains.

The Breakdown
How We Got Here and the Current Balance of Power
How We Got Here and the Current Balance of Power
The U.S. and China are facing off over 5G infrastructure, but despite U.S. wins in Europe, Huawei is proving resilient within an increasingly competitive playing field.
Click to find out how

The Chinese company Huawei is by far the current market leader in 5G infrastructure network equipment in terms of market share. With 30 percent of the telecom equipment market, it controls a larger market share than its two closest competitors—Nokia and Ericsson—combined. However, Huawei’s position is becoming increasingly fragile as both Nokia and Ericsson have now signed over thirty more 5G contracts, despite selling equipment generally at higher price points. This deterioration in Huawei’s 5G market dominance stems primarily from the fallout of ex-President Trump’s May 2019 executive order banning Huawei and ZTE—China’s other telecom equipment manufacturer—from accessing U.S. supply chains. Concerned about the security implications of allowing a Chinese company to build out this critical infrastructure, due to long-running suspicions over Huawei and intellectual property theft, US lawmakers released a fifty-two-page report as far back as 2012, urging U.S. companies to exclude Huawei equipment from their networks. However, the U.S. does not have a direct domestic competitor to Huawei and for the last near-decade, many smaller wireless providers in the U.S. have installed and relied on Huawei equipment to operate their existing networks – embedding Huawei equipment across the U.S.

Amid heightened concern under the Trump administration, bipartisan legislation was drafted in September of 2019 that would authorize $1 billion for small wireless carriers to replace Huawei equipment. While this cost covers replacing Huawei equipment, it does not include the costs in lost revenue while services are down. Colorado telecom provider Viaero estimated that it would lose an additional $50 million in revenues, which the current cost estimates do not take into account. Small and rural wireless providers rely extensively on low-cost equipment from Huawei, and even with subsidies, the costs of ripping out Huawei equipment may be too high for some of these carriers to continue to be profitable. Additionally, the U.S. government has not convinced most rural providers that removing Huawei equipment will make their networks more secure.

Further, there are almost 300 U.S. firms that rely on Huawei for large parts of their revenue streams, and the ban blocked them from doing business with Huawei. The Trump administration has since partially capitulated to these suppliers’ requests to continue doing business with Huawei. In November of 2019, the U.S. government sent approval and denial letters to companies wishing to continue doing business with Huawei. As of February of 2020, roughly half of the processed requests for special licenses to sell equipment to Huawei have been approved by the U.S. Department of Commerce, and in June of 2020, the Department decided to allow U.S. companies to work with Huawei on setting 5G standards. However, subsequent measures have further restricted U.S. companies’ commercial interactions with Huawei. In March of 2020, President Trump restricted U.S. companies from selling to any international suppliers that sold to Huawei. The U.S. is now pivoting toward relying on European and South Korean companies as alternative equipment providers and is urging other countries to follow suit. So far, the U.S. has proposed financing a domestic Huawei competitor through government funds, subsidizing foreign competitors, or outright buying a stake in Nokia and Ericsson. As of early February, of 2021, none of these proposals had yet been enacted.

Meanwhile, the international landscape continues to evolve. An increasing number of countries are joining the U.S. effort to remove Huawei from their 5G networks. Following the U.K.’s decision to ban Huawei, at least twenty-three additional European companies have taken some form of action against Huawei. Sweden enacted an outright ban on Huawei technology in October of 2020, while eleven Eastern European countries, including Poland, the Czech Republic, and Romania, signed onto the U.S. Clean Network initiative. Spearheaded by former US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, Clean Network signees pledge not to work with Chinese vendors the US considers a national security risk (i.e., Huawei and ZTE), amounting to a de-facto ban on their technology sales in these markets. Huawei is currently challenging the legality of these bans but has yet to achieve any significant victories in court. In November of 2020, the US announced that nearly fifty countries and a total of 170 telecom operators had joined the Clean Network agreement, including individual telecoms and national governments in twenty-six of the twenty-seven EU countries.

A number of EU countries, such as France, have not made a formal declaration of joining the initiative, instead opting to exclude Huawei through regulatory requirements that will effectively phase out Huawei technology in the coming years. Others, such as Denmark and Norway, have excluded Huawei by opting for alternative carriers in their networks. Market exclusions have not impacted Huawei’s sales yet, as they actually increased their infrastructure equipment market share from 28 percent in 2019 to 30 percent through Q3 2020. However, there is evidence that Huawei’s 5G sales have been impacted, as Huawei had been the commercial leader in 5G contracts since early 2018 but has now been surpassed by both Nokia and Ericsson, who each announced over 100 signed 5G deals in late 2020. Huawei announced that it had reached ninety-one signed commercial contracts in March 2020, but as of January of 2021, it has made no further announcements and still only lists fifty commercial 5G deals on its official website—raising the possibility that a significant number of planned contracts were cancelled.

Full Timeline of U.S. Huawei Ban

January 2003

Cisco sues Huawei

Cisco filed a lawsuit against Huawei alleging that the latter had unlawfully copied intellectual property from the American networking infrastructure firm. It claimed that this theft related to the unlawful copying of Cisco IOS software, which included source code as well as documentation and other materials, plus infringements of Cisco patents. Read more

March 2013

Obama bans Huawei from working with the U.S. government

The Obama administration ordered several major government departments, including NASA and the Departments of Justice and Commerce, to seek approval from federal law enforcement officials before purchasing IT equipment from all Chinese vendors. Read more

December 1, 2018

Canada arrested Huawei CFO Meng Wanzhou in Vancouver at the request of the United States

The U.S. brought sweeping charges against her and Huawei, portraying the company as a threat to U.S. national security. Read more

May 15, 2019

Huawei banned by executive decree

The Trump administration added Huawei to the U.S. Department of Commerce’s Entity List via executive order, thereby blacklisting the company as far as U.S. corporations are concerned. Read more

May 20, 2019

U.S. signed 90-day reprieve

The Trump administration’s Department of Commerce issued a temporary license that will allow Huawei to maintain its current products (for existing customers). Read more

May 23, 2019

Trump open to dealing with “very dangerous” Huawei

President Trump has called Huawei “very dangerous,” but said the U.S. is open to including the company as part of a future trade agreement between the U.S. and China. Read more

May 27, 2019

Huawei claimed it wouldn’t support bans of American companies

Huawei founder Ren Zhengfei told Bloomberg that he would protest a Chinese ban against Apple, calling the Cupertino company his “teacher.” Read more

May 28, 2019

Huawei sued, saying the ban is unconstitutional

Huawei filed a legal motion claiming the ban on the company working with other U.S.-based companies violates the U.S. Constitution. In its argument, Huawei said that the ban violates a constitutional law stating that Congress cannot make laws against specific individuals. Read more

May 31, 2019

China threatened to create its own “Entity List” to include American firms

According to a spokesman for China’s commerce industry, China will create an Entity List of its own. Even though the spokesman didn’t call out the U.S. or U.S.-based companies, the implication is that China’s Entity List will include U.S.-based companies. Read more

June 6, 2019

Huawei CFO announced intention to fight the U.S. to stay in Canada

Huawei CFO Meng Wanzhou is currently under house arrest in Canada. In early 2020, she will go on trial and face extradition to the U.S. where she would be charged with fraud. However, she will fight to stay in Canada and avoid extradition. Read more

June 21st, 2019

Huawei filed lawsuit against U.S. Department of Commerce

In an expected move, Huawei officially filed a suit against the United States related to the Huawei ban. The company is suing the agency over telecommunications equipment seized by American officials. Read more

June 29, 2019

U.S. companies allowed to work with Huawei again

President Trump announced in a news conference. On the sidelines of the G20 summit in Osaka, Trump said “U.S. companies can sell their equipment to Huawei,” without going into detail. Read more

July 3, 2019

Commerce Department still blacklisting Huawei

Although President Trump said that at least some aspects of the Huawei ban would be lifted, an internal memo in the U.S. Department of Commerce suggests that the company is still getting the blacklist treatment. Read more

July 22, 2019

Huawei involvement with North Korea is exposed

A new report from the Washington Post suggests that Huawei worked closely with North Korea to build out that country’s internal wireless network. If true, this would be in direct violation of multiple international laws and treaties. Read more

August 19, 2019

Huawei’s 90-day reprieve extended by another 90 days

The U.S. gave Huawei a 90-day reprieve following the trade ban against the manufacturer in May. The trade ban, which allows U.S. companies to maintain business ties with Huawei, expired August 19. Read more

August 30, 2019

US reportedly received 130 license requests to sell to Huawei, none granted

The White House made an abrupt turnaround of sorts in June when President Donald Trump announced that some U.S. companies would be allowed to deal with Huawei. The Commerce Department stated at the time that licenses would be granted to U.S. companies wanting to deal with Huawei, as long as there were no security risks involved. Since then, Reuters reported that the department has received 130 license applications to sell goods and services to Huawei, none of which has been granted. Read more

September 18, 2019

Huawei still leads 5G deployment

According to Huawei, shipments for its 5G-enabled base stations appear to be generally unaffected by the trade ban. Huawei reported a 33 percent boost in sales between July and September, bringing the company’s total global shipments to 200,000 units. Read more

September 27, 2019

Huawei shipped 5G base stations without U.S. components

Despite the trade ban, Huawei still maintains its status as king of the 5G hill. On top of that, the company announced that it is producing its 5G-enabled base stations without U.S. parts, and it will double its current production rate in 2020. Read more

November 19, 2019

Huawei granted another 90-day reprieve from the U.S. government

The U.S. government has extended the temporary general license that allows U.S. firms to do business with Huawei by another 90 days. This means devices released or licensed before Huawei was placed on the U.S. Entity List will be able to receive essential software and security updates until at least March 2020. Read more

November 20, 2019

US government has made decisions on Huawei licenses

The United States government finally began sending out approval and denial letters to some of the 290 U.S.-based firms that requested special permission to work with Huawei, according to Reuters. We do not know which companies are approved or denied yet, but the very fact that licenses are going out at all is significant news, as companies have been waiting months for this to happen. Read more

December 5, 2019

Huawei sues the FCC

Huawei announced that it is suing the U.S. Federal Communications Commission (FCC), filing in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit. Huawei is challenging a recently passed FCC order barring rural American carriers from using federal subsidies to purchase equipment from Huawei and ZTE. FCC Chairman Ajit Pai defends the agency’s decision, stating that the two companies pose a security threat to the U.S.’s communications networks and communications supply chain. Read more

Feb. 27, 2020

The FCC started collecting data on Huawei use in U.S. networks, and the Senate passed a bill banning government purchases of Huawei gear. Read more

March 12, 2020

President Trump signed legislation preventing U.S. rural telecom carriers from using Huawei network equipment. Read more

May 14, 2020

President Trump extended his May 2019 executive order banning Huawei for another year, while the Department of Commerce simultaneously extended the temporary licenses it had granted, exempting some American companies from the ban. Read more

June 15, 2020

The Department of Commerce decided to allow U.S. companies to work with Huawei on developing 5G standards. Read more

July 15, 2020

Former US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced that the US will restrict visa access to employees of Huawei and other Chinese tech companies that it designates as being linked to the Chinese Communist Party. The visa restrictions were stated to be put in place due to the CCP’s perceived human rights violations regarding actions around Hong Kong and the Uighur minority group in northwest China. Read more

Aug. 24, 2020

India began taking actions to remove Huawei from its 5G networks after border clashes in the Himalayans turned deadly. While India did not impose an outright ban on Huawei equipment, it stated that it would be moving forward with domestic suppliers instead. Read more

Oct. 20, 2020

Sweden banned Huawei from its 5G networks after an internal review of Huawei’s equipment by their telecommunications agency concluded that the companie’s kits could potentially harm Sweden’s security. The ban also mandated that telecom companies phase out any Huawei and ZTE products currently being used, by the end of 2024. Read more

Nov. 30, 2020

The UK banned the installation of new Huawei equipment and mandated that existing Huawei equipment be removed from networks by 2027. This marked a major reversal of its initial stance on Huawei and dealt a significant blow to Huawei’s European development plans. Read more

Current Power Positions Among the Key Players

Five main companies are competing to build 5G infrastructure globally: Huawei, ZTE, Ericsson, Nokia, and Samsung. Huawei has emerged as the market leader in this space, but with Huawei embroiled in controversy and its key competitors rapidly gaining ground the field is incredibly competitive as the majority of the world’s 5G infrastructure still needs to be built.

Key Takeaways

  • Huawei Still the Market Leader

    Ericsson and Nokia have been market leaders in the telecom equipment space for decades, but since 2010, Huawei has rapidly increased its market share and revenue through extensive research and development (R&D) funding, government grants and subsidies, and exclusive access to the massive domestic Chinese telecom market. In 2018, Huawei emerged as the market leader in the telecom equipment space. However, the recent U.S.-led effort against Huawei has opened opportunities for Nokia and Ericsson to regain some market share. Despite Ericsson and Nokia gaining ground on Huawei by way of 5G contracts, the nature of Huawei’s contracts is more impactful in terms of market power. Huawei provides end-to-end 5G solutions and signs many of its contracts with national governments in countries that have state-owned telecoms. Thus, Huawei’s contracts generally cover a larger scope of services and equipment including entire countries. Despite recent tensions, Huawei has steadily maintained its position as the market leader through Q3 2020.

  • Huawei’s Position Cannot Easily Be Diminished

    Huawei’s 2019 revenue was 4x greater than Nokia or Ericsson, and it owns more patents on essential telecom technology than any of its competitors. Further, Huawei played an essential role in the development of 4G networks globally and has its equipment and services already deployed in 170 countries. While Huawei’s close ties to the Chinese Communist Party have raised concerns over security and competitive practices in the U.S., Huawei’s position is firmly entrenched in the 5G space globally.

  • What’s at Stake

    Huawei’s rise initially positioned China to capture the majority of the revenue from 5G infrastructure spending globally, expected to rise to $95 billion in 2021, but Huawei’s global position has eroded in a number of key markets across Europe and Asia since early 2020. Huawei’s 5G infrastructure contracts, many of which are with governments in the developing world, are enabling China to strengthen political and commercial ties in those regions, but it is increasingly being pushed out of more developed countries, potentially splitting 5G networks into two separate spheres.

Huawei's Global Expansion

Despite being pushed out of key EU markets in 2020, Huawei maintains a strong global presence across Asia, Africa, and Latin America

Huawei status map
Full Huawei ban Full Huawei ban
Huawei contract or memorandum of understanding — Restrictions in place or under consideration Huawei contract or memorandum of understanding — Restrictions in place or under consideration
Huawei contract or memorandum of understanding — No restrictions Huawei contract or memorandum of understanding — No restrictions
Opted for alternative carrier(s) Opted for alternative carrier(s)

Note: Restrictions include banning Huawei from core network functions, placing Huawei under government security reviews, placing limits on the amount of Huawei equipment that can be used, limiting contract duration or general government guidelines that urge telecoms to opt for alternative 5G carriers.

Countries with ongoing disputes surrounding Huawei
(current as of January 2021)

The Department of Commerce is now allowing US companies to work with Huawei on developing 5G standards but has taken further actions to cut off Huawei from the U.S.-based links in the global semiconductor supply chain. The U.S.’s aggressive Clean Network campaign to push Huawei out of global markets has seen increasing success, particularly in Europe. However, with the change in U.S. administration, it is unclear whether President Joe Biden will continue to pursue a similar path as the previous administration, and the US State Department has removed all references to the Clean Network (as of this publication) program from its website, leaving its future in doubt.


The UK emerged as one of the key markets in the U.S.-China battle over Huawei’s market access, and it initially appeared that the UK, which has extensive existing Huawei infrastructure and where Huawei invested $1.2 billion to build a new facility in Cambridge, would continue to use Huawei’s services. However, in November of 2020 it fully reversed course and officially banned Huawei and laid down guidelines for stripping existing Huawei equipment from networks by 2027. The move was a major win for the US campaign against Huawei, as well as the latest blow in an increasingly troubling trend for the company as it continues to lose market access to key European countries where it was initially welcomed.


Canada's relationship with Huawei is fraught with ongoing tensions over Canada’s arrest of Huawei’s CFO Meng Wanzhou's, and the two Canadian nationals China arrested, Michael Spavor and Michael Kovrig, in what Canada claims to be an act of retaliation. Canada refuses to release Meng, and Canada's two largest wireless companies have now signed contracts with Nokia and Ericsson instead of Huawei, effectively barring Huawei from its 5G network despite the lack of an outright ban.


Germany is remaining relatively neutral and refused to single out Huawei. However, after conducting a security review, the German government barred "untrustworthy" sources from developing their 5G network. While some interpreted this to be directed towards Huawei, there is no explicit evidence that this is the case. Despite the ambiguity on the Huawei ban, Germany's main telecom networks have opted to use Ericsson over Huawei for their core 5G networks and are removing Huawei network equipment from their 5G core networks.


After recent border clashes with China, India is now considering excluding Huawei and ZTE from its 5G telecom networks. However, some major Indian telecoms have already begun moving forward with Huawei 5G equipment, meaning that a ban is still not likely. However, after India banned fifty-nine Chinese apps within the country, including Tik Tok, there is now some momentum for a full or partial Huawei ban if the border situation continues to escalate, and relations between China and India deteriorate further.


Huawei has had a continual presence in Brazil, and its status for developing 5G networks within the country is still fairly certain. However, the U.S. has been putting continual pressure on Brazil to eliminate Huawei from its 5G networks. U.S. ambassador for Brazil, Todd Chapman, has been talks with Brazil and its local telecommunications companies about funding the acquisition of 5G gear produced by Ericsson and Nokia through the International Development Finance Corporation, a development bank created by U.S. President Donald Trump in late 2018 to counter China’s Development Bank foreign operations.

Eastern Europe

Romania, Poland, Estonia, Latvia, the Czech Republic, Slovenia, Slovakia, Cyprus, Bulgaria, North Macedonia, and Kosovo have all signed the US’s Clean Network pledge, excluding Huawei from their domestic markets. However, Huawei is currently suing Poland and Romania, claiming the bans are illegal and would breach the principles of legal certainty and predictability in violation of existing EU treaties. With the future of the Clean Network program unclear, it remains to be seen whether these countries will continue to exclude Huawei indefinitely.

The Breakdown
Competitor Profiles and Power Positions
Profiles and Power Positions
Huawei is dominating market share in the telecom equipment space.
Click to see how Huawei’s competition stacks up
Huawei (China)

Founded in 1987, by Ren Zhengfei – a former military technologist for the People’s Liberations Army. Huawei’s breakthrough came when the Chinese government awarded it contracts in data center building and telecommunications construction contracts for 4G networks in China. Despite modest origins, Huawei has grown to be the largest telecom equipment company in China and among the largest globally.

Huawei is the market leader in RAN equipment and has the second largest market share in core network infrastructure products after Ericsson. In Q3 2020, Huawei was the telecom equipment market leader, controlling 30 percent of the market. Huawei’s rise in market share has corresponding with a 364 percent rise in revenue since 2010. Huawei’s rapid rise since 2010, moving from third place in market share, behind Nokia and Ericsson to first place, has been driven by R&D spending, subsidies and grants from the Chinese government. In 2018, Huawei invested over $15 billion in R&D, the 4th most of any tech company in the world. Between 2010 and 2019 Huawei increased its R&D budget by 695 percent, while Ericsson’s spending increased by 23 percent and Nokia’s declined by 25 percent.

Overall Market Position: In Q3 2020, Huawei was the telecom equipment market leader, controlling 30 percent of the global market.

5G Base Station Market Position: In 2019, Huawei held 27.5 percent of the market. At the end of 2020, it held an estimated 28.5 percent of the market.

5G Contracts: 91+ Contracts; 600,000+ 5G base stations shipped.

Global Presence: 170 countries across Asia, Europe, Latin America, and Africa.

Standard Essential Patents: 1554

ZTE (China)

Founded in 1985 by Hou Weigui. ZTE is China’s second largest telecommunications equipment manufacturer competing in the 5G space. ZTE is particularly competitive in the mobile device market, and formerly held a 12 percent share of the mobile phone market in the US. However, the US implemented an import ban on ZTE in March 2017 due to ZTE pleading guilty of illegally exporting US technology to Iran and North Korea in violation of trade sanctions. After ZTE failed to adequately reprimand employees involved in the scandal, the Department of Commerce banned U.S. companies from providing exports to ZTE for seven years in April 2018.

Overall Market Position: In Q3 2020, ZTE was in fourth place in the overall telecom equipment market share with 11 percent.

5G Base Station Market Position: In 2019, ZTE held 6.5 percent of the market. At the end of 2020, it held an estimated 5 percent of the market.

5G Contracts: 55 commercial 5G contracts.

Global Presence: ZTE has sales in 140 countries.

Standard Essential Patents: 1208.

Presence of Competitors Worldwide Based on Publicly Announced 5G Contracts
Huawei Ericsson Nokia Samsung
Huawei contracts Ericsson contracts Nokia contracts Samsung contracts
Ericsson (Sweden)

Founded in 1876, Ericsson was the leader in the wireless equipment market space from the early 2000s, before being surpassed by Huawei in 2016. Both Ericsson and Nokia stand to gain from the U.S. government ban on Huawei and ZTE equipment and would significantly benefit if the EU were to follow suit. EU countries’ banning of Huawei equipment is boosting Nokia’s and Ericsson’s competitive positions vis-à-vis Huawei, as Europe, the Middle East, and Africa are Huawei’s biggest overseas markets, accounting for $31.9 billion in revenue (24 percent of total revenue) in 2019.

Overall Market Position: In Q3 2020, Ericsson was third in telecom equipment market share with 14 percent of the overall market.

5G Base Station Market Position: In 2019, Ericsson held 30 percent of the market. At the end of 2020, it held an estimated 26.5 percent of the market.

5G Contracts: 124 commercial deals, 74 publicly announced contracts; 79 live 5G networks.

Global Presence: Ericsson does business in 180 countries globally.

Standard Essential Patents: 819.

Nokia (Finland)

Founded in 1865, Nokia is one of the oldest telecom companies in the world. Nokia, along with Ericsson, dominated market share in the era of 3G and 4G. Nokia in particular found success in the mobile phone market, controlling a 51 percent share at its peak in 2007. Critically, Nokia and Ericsson both rely on China for sensitive equipment within their supply chains. In light of the US ban on Huawei, Nokia and Ericsson are now working on moving their supply chains away from reliance on China.

Overall Market Position: In Q3 2020, Nokia was second in telecom equipment market share with 15 percent of the overall market.

5G Base Station Market Position: In 2019, Nokia held 24.5 percent of the market. At the end of 2020, it held an estimated 22 percent of the market.

5G Contracts: 139 commercial deals, 95 publicly announced contracts; 44 live 5G networks.

Global Presence: Nokia does business in over 130 countries globally.

Standard Essential Patents: 1427.

Samsung (South Korea)

Founded in 1938, Samsung is South Korea’s largest chaebol (Korean conglomerate controlled by one Korean owner or family). Samsung is the only company besides Huawei that provides total end-to-end 5G solutions, including chip sets, base stations, and smartphones. Telecom equipment has traditionally been a small part of Samsung’s business, primarily based around memory chips and mobile phones. With the U.S. ban on Huawei, and other countries potentially following suit, a window of opportunity has opened for Samsung to increase its market share in the 5G equipment space.

Overall Market Position: In Q3 2020, Samsung held 2 percent of the overall market.

5G Base Station Market Position: In 2019, Samsung held 6.5 percent of the market. At the end of 2020, it held an estimated 8.5 percent of the market.

5G Contracts: 9 publicly announced contracts, 100,000 base stations shipped.

Global Presence: Samsung has sales networks in 80 countries globally.

Standard Essential Patents: 1316

Key Statistics on 5G Competitors
Company Current Market Position 5G Base Station Market Position 5G Contracts Global Presence Standard Essential Patents
 Huawei In Q3 2020, Huawei was the telecom equipment market leader, controlling 30 percent of the market. In 2019, Huawei held 27.5 percent of the market. At the end of 2020, it held an estimated 28.5 percent of the market. 91+ Contracts; 600,000+ 5G base stations shipped. 170 countries across Asia, Europe, Latin America, and Africa. 1,554
 ZTE In Q3 2020, ZTE was in fourth place in the overall telecom equipment market share with 11 percent. In 2019, ZTE held 6.5 percent of the market. At the end of 2020, it held an estimated 5 percent of the market. 55 commercial 5G contracts. ZTE has sales in 140 countries. 1,208
 Ericsson In Q3 2020, Ericsson was third in telecom equipment market share with 14 percent of the overall market. In 2019, Ericsson held 30 percent of the market. At the end of 2020, it held an estimated 26.5 percent of the market. 124 commercial deals, 74 publicly announced contracts; 79 live 5G networks. Ericsson does business in 180 countries globally. 819
 Nokia In Q3 2020, Nokia was second in telecom equipment market share with 15 percent of the overall market. In 2019, Nokia held 24.5 percent of the market. At the end of 2020, it held an estimated 22 percent of the market. 139 commercial deals, 95 publicly announced contracts; 44 live 5G networks. Nokia does business in over 130 countries globally. 1,427
 Samsung In Q3 2020, Samsung held 2 percent of the overall market. In 2019, Samsung held 6.5 percent of the market. At the end of 2020, it held an estimated 8.5 percent of the market. 9 publicly announced contracts, 100,000 base stations shipped. Samsung has sales networks in 80 countries globally. 1,316
Revenue (USD Millions)

Since 2010, Huawei has seen a 274 percent ($76.8 billion) rise in annual revenue, while Ericsson and Nokia's annual revenues have both decreased.

By Annual Total By % Change
  • Huawei
  • ZTE
  • Ericsson
  • Nokia
  • Samsung
Research & Development Spending (USD Millions)

Since 2010, Huawei's R&D spending increased 488 percent ($12.25 billion), while Ericsson and Nokia's R&D spending both decreased

By Annual Total By % Change
  • Huawei
  • ZTE
  • Ericsson
  • Nokia
  • Samsung

Next in Our 5G Power Map Series: The Global Competitive Landscape

Huawei’s presence in 5G infrastructure has become ubiquitous and entrenched, but escalating U.S. pushback along all links of the 5G global supply chain has been intense. Huawei’s rise has been facilitated through generous funding from the Chinese government and exclusive access to the domestic Chinese market, but it is facing increasing obstacles to expanding internationally in the face of increasing resistance in the EU, the U.S. crippling of its supply chain, and the fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic. In the next installment of FP’s 5G Power Map, we will examine the potential effects of Huawei’s rise on global competitiveness and will dive deeper into the implications of the ongoing trade tensions between the U.S. and China. As both the U.S. and China remain embroiled in an ongoing trade war, with both sides tightening laws around technology exports and enacting sweeping tariffs, we will illustrate the potential ramifications along the entire 5G supply chain and what they could mean for the development of 5G networks globally. Crucially, we will examine how the competitive landscape in 5G exemplifies the diverging business models of Western and Chinese companies, and we will lay out what businesses outside of the telecom industry need to know to navigate this evolving environment.

Written by Christian Perez. Edited by Allison Carlson. Copyedited by David Johnstone. Design and development by Andrew Baughman. Art direction by Adam Griffiths. Graphics by Colin Hayes for Foreign Policy. Photos by Getty Images.

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