Why some of the flashiest Android phones aren't in the US

Huawei just unveiled its flagship P20 and sister P20 Pro smartphones, but you won't be seeing them in the US. Here's why.

Roger Cheng Former Executive Editor / Head of News
Roger Cheng (he/him/his) was the executive editor in charge of CNET News, managing everything from daily breaking news to in-depth investigative packages. Prior to this, he was on the telecommunications beat and wrote for Dow Jones Newswires and The Wall Street Journal for nearly a decade and got his start writing and laying out pages at a local paper in Southern California. He's a devoted Trojan alum and thinks sleep is the perfect -- if unattainable -- hobby for a parent.
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  • SABEW Best in Business 2011 Award for Breaking News Coverage, Eddie Award in 2020 for 5G coverage, runner-up National Arts & Entertainment Journalism Award for culture analysis.
Roger Cheng
5 min read
Juan Garzon / CNET

Heading into this year, Huawei's prospects for finally gaining a foothold in the US appeared to be brightening.

The world's third-largest smartphone maker had just launched its latest flagship, the Huawei Mate 10 Pro, and it was garnering favorable reviews. Speculation had bubbled up that Huawei was poised to announce a partnership with AT&T , the second-largest carrier in the US -- a coup for the Chinese telecommunications giant.

Then CES 2018 happened.


Huawei's latest smartphones aren't coming to the US.

Josh Miller

Even before Huawei's planned keynote address at the conference, word got out that the rumored partnership with AT&T wouldn't happen, reportedly due to political pressure. So when Richard Yu, CEO of Huawei's consumer business, got on stage at CES, he spent nearly an hour talking about an already launched product like it was new. At the end, he acknowledged the lack of a carrier was a hit to the company, which would sell its smartphone through retail partners like Amazon and Best Buy .

Days later, reports emerged that Verizon had similarly dropped plans to sell a Huawei smartphone, again because of political pressure. On Wednesday, CNET broke the news that Best Buy would stop selling all Huawei products -- including laptops and smartwatches -- in the coming weeks.

Just in time for a new smartphone, right?

On Tuesday, Huawei unveiled the P20 smartphone and the higher-end P20 Pro, which both pack an insane amount of camera technology. The company, however, confirmed that the P20 wouldn't be heading to the US, despite holding briefings with the press here.

"We know that most of the publications have a global readership," said a spokeswoman. "We thought it was important to make sure you were aware of the latest from Huawei"

The result: Americans will miss out on the chance to buy some of the flashiest new Android smartphones , including one that packs an intriguing Leica triple camera.

How did we get here? Let's do a breakdown of the drama.

Remind me again, what's Huawei? 

Huawei (pronounced wah-way) got its start selling cheap Android smartphones in China, but has since expanded throughout the world with high-end offerings. It's among the world's largest telecommunications companies, building network infrastructure gear, mobile processors and, yes, smartphones.

It's the third-largest smartphone vendor behind Samsung and Apple , according to Gartner.

One of its newest smartphones, the Mate 10 Pro , is smart enough to drive a Porsche for a little while.

So what's the problem?

It's all about national security. The US government has expressed concern that Huawei might be spying on us through its products, specifically its telecommunications equipment. In 2012, a House Intelligence Committee report detailed concerns that both Huawei and ZTE, a fellow Chinese vendor, pose a threat to national security. US companies were banned from buying Huawei equipment. 

On Monday, Federal Communications Commission Chairman Ajit Pai proposed new rules that would bar broadband companies from using a government subsidy program to buy telecom equipment from companies that pose a national security threat. Though the FCC didn't name any companies or countries, Pai had previously written a letter to lawmakers sharing his concerns about espionage threats from Huawei.

But what about Huawei smartphones?

At the time, the committee members specifically said the threat didn't include its smartphones.

At the time?

Last month, the heads of the FBI, CIA and NSA all expressed their concerns about the risks that Huawei and ZTE posed. They also warned against buying the companies' phones, which added a new wrinkle to the story.

Where does this concern come from?

The source of much of the trepidation comes from Huawei founder and Chairman Ren Zhengfei, who was formerly with the Chinese military. Huawei has downplayed his military background, focusing on his ability to take $2,500 in 1987 and turn it into a multibillion-dollar telecommunications juggernaut today.

Still, the perception problem is likely to persist.

"The problems that Huawei is having with the US government are unlikely to blow over anytime soon," said Avi Greengart, an analyst at Global Data.

So are the phones safe?

That's incredibly hard to say with any certainty, which is the core dilemma that Huawei faces. The rest of the world doesn't seem to have a problem with the company. The only exception is Australia, which previously barred Huawei products, but ultimately revoked its ban. Still, the government blocked the company from working on its national broadband network.

Shooting London with Huawei P20 Pro's three cameras

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Huawei boasts relationships with major carriers, corporations and consumers in more than 170 countries. "We have earned the trust of our partners across the global value chain," said a spokesman.

Still, the comments of US government officials leave you wondering what they know that we don't know.

Does politics play into this?

Perhaps, but there's no real way of knowing. The flare-up of anti-Huawei activity coincides with President Donald Trump last week imposing an estimated $50 billion in tariffs on China, which followed new aluminum and steel tariffs from earlier this month.

Keep in mind, this is also the White House that signed an executive order to block Broadcom's planned $117 billion blockbuster acquisition of Qualcomm because of the perceived national security threat posed by Singapore-based Broadcom buying San Diego-based Qualcomm .

The Committee on Foreign Investment in the US, which issued its recommendation to Trump, pointed to Huawei as a company that could threaten the US' influence over 5G wireless technology. 

"Without carrier or even big-box retail distribution, it is basically impossible to sell premium smartphones in the US, and the political pressure to keep Huawei phones [out] is clearly rising as the US and China edge toward a trade war," Greengart said. 

What about ZTE?

ZTE is an odd one because it often gets roped into the conversation with Huawei. Yet unlike with its Chinese rival, US carriers do sell ZTE phones. ZTE budget phones are a favorite of the prepaid service providers, and AT&T sells its foldable Axon M smartphone.

ZTE denies any wrongdoing and argues that it's "collateral damage" in the scrutiny over Huawei. The company points to the US resources and components that go into its products.

Well, if Huawei phones are safe enough for everyone else, that's good enough for me. Where do I buy one?

Huawei still sells its products through Amazon, Best Buy, Newegg and B&H. Best Buy will stop selling its products in the coming weeks. So if you want to see Huawei smartphones, laptops and smartwatches in person, you may want to check a local Best Buy out while you can.

Huawei P20 and P20 Pro aim to one-up Samsung

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