China has produced a 5G smartphone using small-scale advanced silicon chips considered beyond its capabilities due to US-led export controls, analysts said.
Huawei’s Mate 60 Pro is powered by the new Kirin 9000s chip, manufactured in China by partially state-owned Semiconductor Manufacturing International Corp (SMIC), according to analyst firm TechInsights.
Its processor was the first to use SMIC’s cutting-edge 7 nanometer (nm) technology and the Chinese government is making some progress in efforts to build a domestic chip ecosystem, the research firm said.
Since 2019, the U.S. has blocked Huawei’s access to chipmaking equipment needed to make more advanced handset models. Despite being a manufacturer of 5G network equipment, Huawei has previously been able to launch only limited batches of actual 5G phones using stock chips.
Huawei is banned from supplying 5G network equipment to several countries, including the Five Eyes security alliance, due to national security concerns raised by its ties to the Chinese government. Huawei has filed a lawsuit in a Lisbon court against a ban on its equipment being used on 5G mobile networks.
Dan Hutcheson, an analyst at Tech Insights, told Reuters the latest development was a “slap in the face” for the US.
The most advanced chip SMIC was previously known to mass produce at 14nm, as SMIC was barred by Washington from acquiring the necessary machinery from Dutch company ASML in late 2020.
But TechInsights said it hopes to be able to build SMIC 7nm chips by 2022 by modifying simple machines that can be purchased freely from ASML. However, some research firms predict that only 50% or less of the 7nm chips produced this way will become usable, against the industry norm of 90% or more, which will limit shipments of the resulting smartphones.
Outside of China, the best 7nm chips are made using a process called extreme ultraviolet lithography (EUV) — a closely guarded technology at the forefront of the U.S. push to keep them out of Beijing’s hands.
“The [US] “The restrictions impose high costs on manufacturing controlled technologies in China,” said Doug Fuller, a chip researcher at Copenhagen Business School.
China is set to launch a new state-backed investment fund aimed at raising around $40bn for its chip sector as the country steps up efforts to catch up with the US and other rivals.
Huawei started selling its Mate 60 Pro phone last week. The specifications provided advertised its ability to make satellite calls, but did not provide any information about the power of the chipset inside.
Buyers of the phone in China have been posting teardown videos and sharing speed tests on social media, suggesting the Mate 60 Pro will outpace download speeds of top-line 5G phones.
The phone’s launch sent Chinese social media users and state media into a frenzy, with some noting that it coincided with the visit of US Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo.
Some analysts have suggested that Huawei may have acquired technology and equipment from SMIC to manufacture the chip.
TechInsight’s findings were first reported by Bloomberg News.