TANGERHÜTTE, Germany — In a hollowed-out east German town where the factories closed long ago and the population dwindles with every death notice, Andreas Brohm sees the makings of a renaissance.
Tangerhütte could be a hub for wind energy. A center for server farms. A magnet for young professionals, like himself, who yearn for wide-open spaces to raise their kids, far from the cost and craze of life in the big city.
If only residents could get a decent cellphone signal.
“As the mayor of this town, I need communications. I need 5G,” Brohm, 40, said in an interview at the town’s century-old, red-brick town hall, where Internet connections are spotty. “I don’t care who provides it.”
But the Trump administration does care.
Concerned about the potential for cyberespionage or even sabotage, the United States last month took the extraordinary step of telling the German government not to include the Chinese firm Huawei in its plans to roll out the next generation of Internet technology. If Germany ignores the advice, officials have warned, U.S. intelligence sharing could be at stake.
Excluding Huawei carries its own risks. Service providers say that without the world’s largest telecommunications equipment maker, building a 5G network will cost far more and take years longer. In the places that need it most — the towns and villages of the German countryside — the promise of a digital revolution that could spawn a 21st-century revival may never be realized.
The collision of those concerns helps explain why Germany’s decision on Huawei has proved so agonizing. For now, the government has avoided making one: It has declined to ban the firm outright while setting what officials say is a high-enough standard for security that Huawei may struggle to clear it.
But ultimately, Germany — along with governments across Europe — will have to choose. And either way, there are likely to be significant costs.
The hit for Germany from a delayed 5G rollout could be especially acute.
Although the country is the undisputed economic titan of Europe, it is also a digital laggard. Germany has some of the lowest penetration rates for fiber-optic broadband among industrialized nations. A study last year revealed that people get speedier surfing on their phones in Albania than they do in Germany. Outside the big cities such as Berlin, Hamburg and Munich — and sometimes even within them — service is patchy at best.
Chancellor Angela Merkel has said the country needs to scale up its digital performance or face a dire economic reckoning. “Our future prosperity depends on it,” she has told audiences.
A rapid and comprehensive rollout of 5G — thereby leapfrogging the anemic deployment of 4G technologies — is seen by experts as the country’s best hope to catch up to its peers and help close the growing prosperity gap between urban and rural areas.
The first step in that push comes this spring, with the auctioning of 5G spectrum licenses. All of Germany’s major telecommunications providers are bidding.
But they warn that they won’t be able to deploy the new network — billed as an exponential jump in connectivity that will open the door to autonomous vehicles, remote surgery and other transformational uses of technology — without help from Huawei.
Excluding the firm would be “hugely disruptive,” adding costs and delays that could set the project back years, Vodafone chief executive Nick Read told the Mobile World Congress in February.
“It structurally disadvantages Europe,” he said.
Huawei technology is already deeply embedded in European communications networks, with its stamp on everything from handheld devices to transmission towers.
An insistence that the firm’s products play no role in 5G would mean that “companies have to focus on removing technology from the network rather than building it out,” said Nick Kriegeskotte, head of telecommunication policy with Bitkom, an industry trade group.
That’s one reason Kriegeskotte doesn’t expect Huawei, or any other major 5G technology maker, to be left out.
But picking providers that include Huawei in their plans would further roil an already turbulent transatlantic relationship. U.S. Ambassador Richard Grenell put Germany on notice last month with a letter to the Economy Ministry laying out a case for why the United States may not be able to continue sharing sensitive information if it doesn’t feel it can trust the integrity of German communication networks.
“This could in the future jeopardize nimble cooperation and joint mobilization, particularly in times of crisis,” the embassy said in a statement.
Germany and other European allies rely heavily on U.S. intelligence, and any disruption to the sharing of sensitive information could be debilitating.
German officials privately scoff at the U.S. threats, saying they don’t believe Washington would actually curtail intelligence cooperation that is mutually beneficial.
But apart from the U.S. pressure, German security officials and experts say there is good reason to be wary of Huawei. The firm, they say, can’t be trusted not to take part in surveillance or spying on behalf of the Chinese government, and a crucial role for the company in German communications networks could become leverage for China in geopolitics.
When those factors are taken into account, said Free University Berlin computer science professor Matthias Wählisch, Huawei’s technology looks like much less of a bargain than the sticker price on its products would suggest.
“It’s not only the money you pay for the equipment,” he said.
Huawei has mounted an aggressive campaign to rebut suggestions that it represents a security threat. In Bonn — the old capital of West Germany and still home to numerous German federal agencies — the company has set up a demonstration center where regulators can review the firm’s source code.
Huawei also has sent lobbyists to meet with lawmakers, although they have not always been convincing. Daniela Kluckert, a member of the German parliament with the pro-business Free Democrats, said that even after hearing the firm’s pitch, she thinks Germany needs to be careful.
“It’s more important to be safe than to have 5G cheaper and faster,” she said.
But Kluckert, who sits on a key committee with oversight of the 5G rollout, also said it is hard to overstate just how much Germany needs a tech upgrade — particularly outside the big cities.
In Tangerhütte, a town of modest red-roofed buildings set amid endless green pastures 75 miles west of Berlin, getting faster Internet has become a matter of survival.
The town of nearly 11,000 has lost a third of its population in recent decades, as employers shuttered operations and young people sought better opportunities in bigger locales.
Brohm, the mayor, initially was among those who left. He lived and worked across Europe, ending up in Berlin pursuing a career in musical theater.
But as rent climbed and Brohm’s family grew to include three children, he wanted a return to the easier living and tightknit community of his youth. He proposed a move back to Tangerhütte, and his wife was receptive — to a point.
“She said, ‘If we can’t have Internet in our home, I won’t go with you,’ ” Brohm recalled. “People today can live without an opera house, a cinema, a concert hall. But they can’t live without energy, water and broadband. The door to the world is the Internet.”
As mayor, Brohm has led a crusade to improve connection speeds and cellular reception, believing those are the keys to the area’s economic revival.
Thomas Krone’s experience shows why: The third-generation owner of a Tangerhütte manufacturing firm that dates to 1923, he sells metal fencing used in factories the world over. And he still does it much the way his grandfather did, by hand.
With faster Internet, he has dreams of expansion: an online shop or maybe an automated production process.
But without an upgrade, Krone, 53, isn’t sure there will be anything left to pass on to his kids. Clients are demanding ever more sophisticated practices, using 3-D designs, that just aren’t possible when poor network connections make basic downloads an all-afternoon affair.
“We’re in nowhere land,” Krone said, motioning to the farmers’ fields that encircle his warehouselike shop floor. “It’s not going to be possible to maintain this business without Internet.”