The global debate about 5G – Huawei’s marketing lead and the security issue, Europe’s fragmented landscape– has usually taken for granted that America is almost absent from the scene. Yet America’s pullback is more of an appearance than a reality. Yes, it is no longer the world’s maker of handheld devices, or of much hardware gear. Once a leader for standards with CDMA (after Europe’s GSM norm, now forgotten), it has not been half as present as Chinese entities – companies, public organizations and lobbying – in defining new norms for 5G inside the international standards body 3GPP. "The Valley" is not focused on complete hardware products but on software for which it obtains huge global returns, chip design and subsets that go inside others’ brands. The three telcos – AT&T, Verizon, and Sprint (instead of the 23 European companies, not counting virtual operators) - are also very profitable. But they do not build, of course.
The simmering Huawei security issue, brought to a climax by Donald Trump’s decision on May 15 to ban Huawei from U.S. telecommunications, may seem to have been a self-inflicted wound. Where Europe has two underfinanced suppliers (Ericsson and Nokia), the U.S. seemed to have none.
That perception is wrong. American software, chip design and subsets run inside almost every existing IT system – including nascent 5G networks. Rather than take risky bets over brand dominance (with the exception of Apple), the US digital industry makes itself indispensable to competitors.