Huawei is still using components made by US companies in its newest flagship smartphone, a Financial Times teardown has found, despite the US all but blacklisting the Chinese telecoms equipment manufacturer.
On Thursday, Huawei launched its P40 smartphone — one of the first flagship devices the company has launched since Washington’s introduction of sanctions last May that barred US companies from selling to the Chinese group unless specifically licensed to do so.
In the wake of the sanctions, Huawei, which the Trump administration accuses of spying for Beijing, has had to find ways of replacing its US components. Crucially, Google can no longer supply its Android mobile services platform to the Chinese company.
The FT took apart a Huawei P40 Pro phone as well as last year’s P30, released just before US sanctions hit, for comparison. The teardown was done by XYZone, a Shenzhen-based company that disassembles smartphones and identifies the suppliers of their components.
Phonemakers sometimes use different components in different batches of the same smartphone, and the FT teardown was modelled on the earliest available copy of the P40.
The biggest surprise was that some parts from US companies were still ending up in the newest Huawei smartphone, despite the US all but banning its companies from selling to the Chinese tech company.
The P40’s radio-frequency front-end modules were, according to XYZone’s teardown analysis, produced by Qualcomm, Skyworks and Qorvo, three US chip companies. RF front-end modules are critical parts of the phone that are attached to the antennas and required to make calls and connect to the internet.
The Qualcomm component is covered by a licence from the US commerce department, according to a person familiar with the company. Qorvo and Skyworks did not respond to requests for comment.
“Huawei has shown resilience by replacing many US components over the course of a single phone-design cycle. Its continued use of Qorvo and Skyworks chips also shows that it’s too difficult to break dependence on US technology,” said Dan Wang, technology analyst at research firm Gavekal Dragonomics.
RF front-end modules are a form of analogue chip, a sector in which the US still has dominance, Mr Wang said. “As the US debates tightening sanctions on Huawei, the company’s resilience will be tested more severely in the coming year,” he added.
The RF front-end modules in last year’s P30 also came from Qualcomm, Skyworks and Qorvo, whose stock prices plunged on news of US sanctions against Huawei.
The “Entity List” designation means that US companies have to apply for a licence to export any US-origin technologies to Huawei. The US government has granted a “temporary general licence” to its companies, allowing them to sell to Huawei to service existing products — helping clients such as telecoms carriers that may need to replace parts of their wireless equipment.
But the general licence does not cover sales for the purpose of making new products, such as the P40 smartphone. For that, companies must seek individual licences, and the Department of Commerce has not said which ones it has granted them to.
A spokesperson for Huawei said the company has “always complied with any export control regulations of various countries, including the United States” and that “all the product materials are obtained legally from our global partners, and we insist on working with our partners to provide consumers with high quality products and services.”
Other notable changes from last year include the potential disappearance of US chipmaker Micron from the P40 Pro — or at least from the batch that the FT received. Micron made the storage devices called NAND flash memory chips for some batches of last year’s P30 smartphone, and South Korea’s Samsung made the same chips for other batches. The FT’s copy of this year’s P40 Pro appears to have only Samsung NAND flash memory chips.
Both the P30 and the P40 are largely made of components manufactured and assembled by Chinese, South Korean and Taiwanese companies, with only a small fraction of the overall value of components originating from US companies.
Yet US companies have historically held strategic chokepoints on Huawei’s phones, from the Android operating system to RF front-end chips and the chip architectures by Arm Holdings, which formed the basis of Huawei’s in-house chip design unit HiSilicon.
Additional reporting by Richard Waters in San Francisco
This article has been amended since publication with a response from Huawei.