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No more export licenses: US plans to fully cut off Huawei from chip suppliers

A man speaks on a smartphone outside a Huawei storefront.

Huawei has been hobbling along for a few years now with limited access to US chips and technology, with both the Trump and Biden administrations banning general exports to the company. Huawei hasn’t seen zero US chips, but every sale has had to be approved by the government, with the restrictions being tweaked several times since the initial ban in 2019. Reuters, The Financial Times, and several other outlets have reported that the Biden administration is putting even tighter restrictions on Huawei, with FT saying the US is working toward a “total ban” on sales to the Chinese tech company.

Like every tech company, Huawei buys components from a bunch of different suppliers to make its network equipment and smartphones. While a ton of manufacturing is done in China, there aren’t many options for CPUs, and US companies Qualcomm and Intel have been keeping Huawei afloat with limited government-granted export licenses. Intel chips have meant the company can still build servers, and while 5G tech was banned from export, Qualcomm went out of its way to make special, 4G-only versions of its latest SoCs.

As the US tried to balance hurting Huawei without hurting US suppliers that have Huawei as a customer, the decision was made to still allow sales, just not of the latest technology. The cutoff point for this was the always-nebulous moniker of “5G,” but now even that is being shut off. Reuters says: “U.S. officials are creating a new formal policy of denial for shipping items to Huawei that would include items below the 5G level, including 4G items, Wifi 6 and 7, artificial intelligence, and high-performance computing and cloud items.” It sounds like that would ban all sales from Intel and Qualcomm.

Tech companies are not happy about losing a customer. Information Technology and Innovation Foundation, a Washington, DC, think tank that counts Qualcomm, Intel, and most other Big Tech companies among its supporters, said in a press release: “The administration’s ongoing efforts to bolster U.S. technology competitiveness have been commendable, but fully cutting off Huawei from U.S. suppliers would likely have the opposite effect.” It continued, “China remains a critical market for U.S. technology vendors, accounting for 36 percent of U.S. semiconductor sales as recently as 2019. Every dollar a U.S. technology company earns in the Chinese market is one that Chinese competitors don’t earn, so banning exports to Huawei helps Chinese technology suppliers and hurts their U.S. counterparts.”

Not granting new export licenses does not immediately cut off Huawei. The US will only stop granting new licenses, so, if it doesn’t revoke existing licenses (it could!), Huawei would have a few more months of parts until the existing licenses expire. The Financial Times quoted “an executive at a semiconductor design house that has worked with Huawei” as saying that the real change will come when existing licenses expire, but “since no detail regarding which licences were granted and when is public, that becomes hard to predict.”

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