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Huawei hasn’t Won the 5G Race: A Case Study of 5G Competition in Malaysia

On September 28th, 2022, Malaysia and China signed a memorandum of understanding (MOU) on digital communications cooperation with regard to 5G, paving the road for future joint initiatives between the two states on sharing best practices, experience and expertise. While Malaysian Communications and Multimedia Minister Saifuddin Abdulla noted that Huawei would “manage the transition to [a] 5G network,” Ericsson beat Huawei in winning a contract worth RM11bn ($2.5bn) to build Malaysia’s national 5G network. The deal would allow Ericsson to further its goal of increasing the “supply of 5G radio, core and transport products and solutions, as well as related implementation and integration services.”

Additionally, Ericsson has worked heavily to promote 5G adoption throughout the country. In 2022, the company signed its own MOU with Malaysian Research Accelerator for Technology and Innovation (MRANTI) and Digital Nasional Berhad (DNB) with the aim of sending resources directly to Malaysian businesses and private companies. The three entities launched the 5G Experience Center at a facility owned by MRANTI known as the MRANTI Park. The Experience Center welcomes visitors from private companies and provides them with the necessary training, skills, and hardware to implement 5G in their own businesses. In this sense, Ericsson has presented itself as a provider or a hub from which companies can acquire the resources to make the transition to 5G. The principal objective is to “equip innovators, researchers, and businesses with cutting-edge infrastructure and capabilities to drive returns on innovation across the ecosystem,” according to Dzuleira Abu Bakar, Chief Executive Officer of MRANTI.

Huawei has tried forcing itself into the market as Malaysian officials claim that 50% of the country has received 5G coverage. It has tried to make Malaysia re-open the tender process for selecting which companies can invest in 5G infrastructure through “a mixture of soft power and outright lobbying to try to get the adoption of their systems somewhere in the rollout.” U.S., UK, and EU government envoys are insisting to Malaysian officials that they should not open the negotiating process once again. This would provide Huawei with the opportunity of setting up a rival network in Malaysia. In 2021, it seemed likely that Huawei would acquire the 10-year deal, but Ericsson provided a more competitive offer. 

Indeed, one of Malaysia’s 5G providers, Digital Nasional Berhad, has shown interest in “[a]ppointing a second 5G vendor besides Ericsson,” since this would potentially “reduce costs and speed up the 5G rollout nationwide.” In addition, “having a dual vendor approach could potentially mitigate the risks of a single point of failure.” It allows an entire part of 5G coverage to remain untouched if one of the providers is facing a network problem.

Theoretically Transformative, Currently Limited

In Malaysia, 5G will fulfill its traditional role of connecting more users to the Internet, but that only scratches the surface of what China can achieve by continuing to deploy its technologies. “The convergence of 5G and different industrial sectors such as agriculture, education, health care, manufacturing, smart transport and tourism presents new opportunities for industries, society and individuals to advance their digital ambitions and deliver new and better services,” Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad said. MRANTI’s Abu Bakar also highlighted the scope of the new technology, saying that the Experience Center will entail “facilities and resources to support industry growth in dronetech, healthtech, agritech, bioscience and 4IR enabling technologies.” What does this mean in practice?

Read the rest at GeoTech.

Axel de Vernou is a research assistant at Yorktown Institute.

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