Huawei in bid to provide free mobile networks on the Tube

Elizabeth Fournier
CHINA’S biggest telecoms operator, privately-owned Huawei Technologies, is bidding to provide a mobile network for the London underground system in time for the 2012 Olympics.

The equipment for the network would likely be provided free of charge, with tube operator Transport for London stressing that due to budgeting pressures, any such proposal would have to be funded by the mobile network companies.

In a statement, Huawei confirmed it was involved in the bidding process, and said that the project was a means of expanding its presence in the UK market.

The bid is being pitched as a gift from the previous Olympic nation to the next, with work guaranteed to be completed by next summer if the proposal on the table proves successful.

There has long been discussion of introducing mobile networks to the underground, but critics have raised fears over how secure the networks would be, particularly as mobile technology can be used to remotely detonate explosives.

Huawei has been particularly keen to stress its commitment to security, following controversy over a deal it did with US company 3Leaf to use its patents. The deal has been under review after it failed to meet the requirements of a national security review, with Huawei initially refusing to bow to pressure to withdraw from the deal and sell the patents. That left the decision solely in President Obama’s hands until late yesterday, when the company finally agreed to the recommendation to divest the patents, avoiding a potentially embarrassing showdown.

In its statement on the Tube contract yesterday the company emphasised: “Our newly opened cyber security centre in the UK shows our commitment to ensuring our equipment meets the most stringent security requirements.”

Huawei has long been a controversial player on the global stage, having weathered accusations of close ties to the Chinese military and government.

But though its founder and chief executive Ren Zhengfei was an officer in the People’s Liberation Army and is a member of the National Congress of the Communist Party of China, the company strongly denies any links that would raise security concerns.

Reports have cited Zhengfei as owning just two per cent of the company, and its statement today stressed that Huawei is a 100 per cent privately held global company owned entirely by its employees.

If the London underground deal goes ahead, key Olympic routes including the Jubilee and Central lines are likely to be prioritised.

French electronics group Thales has been touted as a potential to instal and maintain the networks, but has so far refused to comment.

Company Huawei Technologies

Revenue $23.3bn (2008)

CEO Ren Zhengfei (left)

Previous record Founded in 1988 as a provider of domestic business telephone exchanges; expanded into Hong Kong in 1996; overseas sales surpassed domestic sales in 2004. Runs joint ventures with Siemens, Symantec and 3Com.

Controversies Settlement in July 2004 with Cisco Systems to withdraw products, after it was accused of stealing Cisco technology. Accused of exploiting legal loopholes to re-sign employees, thus exempting them from a new Labour Contract Law – denied by the company. Pentagon stated concerns in 2008 that it “maintains close ties” with the People’s Liberation Army, a claim also under investigation in Australia.