In February, US Attorney General William Barr argued China’s robust buildup of 5G communications networks and technology is one of America’s greatest national security threats. That conclusion came as little surprise for industry experts and intelligence analysts who have honed in on the implications of the new technology. The common takeaway from them is that 5G is here, the US is losing the race to China, and as a result, America might not be prepared for modern-day warfare.
What is 5G?
Put simply, 5G is the next phase of wireless networks. Every four or five years, technology companies rollout new protocols that enable faster data speeds — up to 100 times faster once fully implemented. In the case of 5G, the gap between it and its predecessor, 4G, is longer than that of the previous generation.
While 4G was standardized in 2008 by the International Telecommunications Union (ITU), 4G-enabled devices didn’t hit markets until a few years later. The first 4G iPhone, for example, didn’t arrive until 2012. Although tech companies coordinate with the ITU to develop standards, thus ensuring devices from different manufactures are compatible with each other and a wide range of operators, creating chips to enable the technology is another mission entirely.
All About the Chips
Manufacturers must design or outsource the design for the computer chips, produce them in sufficient quantities, and ensure they don’t drain battery life too fast. That last point is the largest barrier to the speedy deployment of new network protocols like 5G — the first chips of any generation are power hungry. It’s for this reason that Apple often delays its adoption of new network technology for a year or two after Android smartphone producers.
5G brings another benefit in addition to faster data speeds — it allows a greater number of devices to connect at one time. This is crucial for the new Internet of Things (IoT) industry. Everything from microwaves to doorbells and automobiles is connected to the internet these days. 5G allows a greater number of devices to connect because it boasts a higher bandwidth than its predecessor. This can be equated to driving down a two-lane road versus a four-lane highway.
Latency, the amount of time it takes for a device to connect to a cellphone tower and receive a response, is vastly improved. The practical implications for the technology open doors to use cases previously unthought of, such as a jet engine manufacturer that implemented 5G to detect production errors.
As a result, mobile networks will be less congested, thereby enabling stronger coverage for consumers. However, the benefits of 5G are also their weaknesses which present challenges that governments must overcome.
The more devices that connect to the internet, the more opportunities hackers have to force their way into a network, the Brookings Institute reported. Also, due to the nature of 5G technology, networks are different from a hardware standpoint. While previous network protocols featured a centralised hub through which traffic was routed, 5G is built on software routing that is spread across the network.
The over-reliance on software to manage 5G networks presents vulnerabilities that didn’t exist or were minimized with previous iterations of wireless technology.
“In a world of interconnected networks, devices, and applications, every activity is a potential attack vector. This vulnerability is only heightened by the nature of 5G and its highly desirable attributes,” Tom Wheeler, former chairman of the US Federal Communications Commission, and David Simpson, former chief of the Public Safety and Homeland Security Bureau, wrote for Brookings.
A lack of cybersecurity investment by US businesses and a “cumbersome” FCC process to establish new rules hindered attempts to be proactive about locking down new 5G technology.
Private hackers are only one concern. The greater threat is state and state-backed cyber warfare. China, North Korea, Iran, and Russia have all made successful attempts to infiltrate US networks. The threat is serious enough that the Pentagon, no longer content with playing defence against hackers, authorised US Cyber Command to go on the offensive against foreign governments. Cyber Command has largely focused on disabling communications systems and eliminating cyber warfare capabilities of adversaries.
5G Turns Political
“We have evidence that Huawei has the capability secretly to access sensitive and personal information in systems it maintains and sells around the world,” said US National Security Adviser Robert O’Brien in February.
The allegation was the latest in a year-long battle between the US government and Chinese tech conglomerate Huawei. Specifically, the Trump administration accused the business of building backdoors into their network equipment. Together, Huawei and China-based ZTE have built 40% of the world’s 5G network infrastructure.
American officials decided to ban Huawei and ZTE, citing national security, barring American businesses from using them to build their 5G networks with Chinese equipment. In May, he extended the order for another year. Trump and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo have also engaged in a concerted campaign to compel allies to ban the companies in their states under threat of reducing intelligence cooperation.
“Our economic future is at stake,” Barr said in February. “The risk of losing the 5G struggle with China should vastly outweigh other considerations.”
For America, the 5G war with China is a race to own the technology and dominate the industry to lock out Beijing, but the US is presently losing. American companies simply don’t offer the technology that Huawei does, and certainly not at its low prices. Instead, US networks have to look to European-based Ericsson and Nokia, both of which have picked up substantially more contracts following international backlash against Huawei.
To be clear, allegations against Huawei and ZTE have thus far been unfounded. Technology experts have never uncovered supposed backdoors. However, with US–China relations broken down and recent Beijing-backed cyber espionage attempts, the Trump administration is unlikely to relent.
Beijing’s Hacking Highlight’s US Trust Issues
On May 13, the US Federal Bureau of Investigation and Department of Homeland Security alerted healthcare companies that China is attempting to hack COVID-19 research data.
“These actors have been observed attempting to identify and illicitly obtain valuable intellectual property (IP) and public health data related to vaccines, treatments, and testing from networks and personnel affiliated with COVID-19-related research,” the agencies wrote. “The potential theft of this information jeopardizes the delivery of secure, effective, and efficient treatment options.”
Beijing’s actions do little to inspire confidence in Washington and will only hurt its tech companies seeking to export their 5G technology. Even if Huawei and ZTE are innocent, their government is not and that has transformed 5G networks into a political issue.
Finally, as a Barr said, 5G network deployment represents the first time America has lagged behind on the global stage. That realisation, that China has access to faster, more reliable networks before the US, hurts perhaps more than threats of cyber warfare because US President Donald Trump’s motto is “make America great again.”
All of these factors mean that 5G networks and equipment will be delayed in the US. While some operators have branded their latest offerings as “5G,” the truth is that they are usually downscaled version. True 5G uses a technology known as “millimetre wave,” but access to this coverage is highly limited.
Instead operators are making smaller improvements and simply labeling it as 5G. AT&T, for example, has even rebranded a subsegment of its 4G network to call it “5GE.”
For a true network progression to 5G in the US, the political issues between Washington and Beijing need to be resolved or American companies must begin developing their own infrastructure solutions. Even then, the new security risks of 5G mean that companies and consumers must take greater precautions as they connect their devices to the new generation networks.