Huawei has received a lot of press coverage in recent months, but, all too often for a global corporation, it hasn’t been positive.
As a Chinese firm, it is under increasing scrutiny from the West which is questioning everything from the security of its products to suspected links with the state government.
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So what was the company’s response? To open up the doors of one of its research and development centres in Europe, hoping to show it was transparent about its activities and keen to invest outside of its home territory.
R&D is a huge part of what Huawei does. It has 70,000 employees dedicated to it – more than the entire staff of rival firm Cisco – and although only 800 of these reside in Europe, it has made stellar efforts to open more centres across the region, including in the UK, Ireland, Finland and Brussels.
We travelled to its base in Stockholm, Sweden – the first operation Huawei launched outside of China. It was opened in the year 2000 with the purpose of designing a 3G system as the firm realised the expertise on this technology was in Europe rather than its home region.
Around 350 people work at the facility focusing on cellular systems, which is tiny compared to the number of employees overall, but each one has a minimum of 10 years’ experience in their field.
Urban Fagerstedt, vice president of Huawei Sweden R&D centre, gave us further details on what his teams were working on.
“We only start R&D,” he explained. “We generate ideas, we create concepts, we may build a prototype to demonstrate you can do this and then the work is handed over to our Chinese colleagues.”
One of the main areas the centre has worked on since it opened is energy issues and the Stockholm base is one of the strongest in researching power amplifiers.
“These are the devices which put up the [signals] that your cellphone tries to catch, [namely] transmitting radio waves,” said Fagerstedt.
“The issue is that transmitting radio waves requires a lot of energy and the more data you want, the more energy it takes. So we have been spending these 13 years trying to improve power amplifiers, trying to make them more efficient but also trying to make them [provide] wider bandwidth so you can have more data.”
The centre also looks at filtering of signals within base stations.
“It is not only about building an efficient amplifier but it is about choosing an efficient way of propagating to you, perhaps choosing for you a frequency that is not being used by someone else so we can use less power or providing better bandwidth,” explained Fagerstedt.
“So we are working a lot with the control logic of how to use radio resources and how to schedule when you are allowed to send. These things can provide a lot of energy saving or a lot of capacity improvement.”
There are a number of the researchers at Stockholm who look at the smartphones themselves, but again there is a focus on the power management within these devices and making the battery last as long as possible with tweaks to the hardware and software.
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“Normally I brag a bit because when these phones are reviewed it is often mentioned that they have a good battery life,” he added. “It is a delight as it means they are power efficient.”
But, Huawei’s major focus for the future is the next step on mobile connectivity: 5G. The company has pledged to have such technologies up and running by 2020 and in Sweden it is one of the main projects being done.
“What we call 5G? So far it does not exist,” said Fagerstedt. “It is a solution waiting for good ideas and answers and we are trying to bring those about by doing academic research, by meeting colleagues from other companies, discussing options and possibilities.”
“The problem we are trying to solve is to give you 1000 times better capacity than today without spending any more money or using any more energy. It is quite a formidable one.”
Two days touring Huawei’s Stockholm base is unlikely to hush the critics, but the general reaction of the press has been positive and the executives seem keen to show us more of its operations up close and personal.
The fact is the technologies they are working on are key to all our futures, both as consumers and business people.
The more open any technology company is about its operations, the more likely it is to receive the trust of governments, regulators and even potential customers. That is what every vendor needs if they want to have a global presence and when it comes to Huawei, we cannot wait to see more.