The Geostrategic Imperative for American Leadership on 5G

August 9, 2019

Takeaways

5G leadership is more than economically and commercially essential, it is a geostrategic imperative.
America’s vision of 5G is rooted in economic empowerment, personal freedom, privacy protection, and stability.

As described in What in the 5G World, the vast, revolutionary capabilities that 5G will generate promise to change the course of human development. Pairing ultra-high capacity and speed with ultra-low latency means that entire industries could be reshaped as we adapt to a world in which digital commands and responses occur almost simultaneously.

Three strategic requirements must be fulfilled for the United States to lead and prosper in the 5G wireless world:

  1. Swift nationwide 5G network buildout
  2. Trusted and reliable microelectronics supply chain
  3. Cybersecurity

SWIFT NATIONWIDE NETWORK BUILDOUT

The countries that buildout nationwide 5G networks the best and fastest will gain vital first-mover advantage. State of the art wireless connectivity will be the center post of modern enterprise operations and a magnet for Foreign Direct Investment – pillars of national economic growth and prosperity. First movers will be pole-positioned to develop the job-creating industries and innovations spawned by the 5G ecosystem. Victory in this race will require purposeful public and private sector collaboration, particularly in three areas: spectrum sufficiency, infrastructure deployment, and inclusive coverage.

  • Assuring enough spectrum is available to support the rapid and full 5G buildout

CTIA, the wireless industry’s chief trade association, reports that “Mid-band spectrum is a key building block for 5G, thanks to its ability to travel far and offer high capacity for mobile traffic. Compared to the U.S., other countries are making 4x more critical mid-band spectrum available for 5G by the end of 2020.”[i]  The good news is that the U.S. leads in the availability of high-band spectrum (above 24 GHz), also known as millimeter wave spectrum. High-band has performance characteristics that enables 5G to achieve its greatest potential, especially in high-density urban areas. Overall, U.S. 5G leadership rests on the availability and efficient employment of spectrum — a function of sharp policy and elegant engineering. 

  • Speeding the deployment of small cells (portable, miniature base stations) composing the network required for 5G service.

Cooperation at every level of government (federal, state, local, and tribal) will be required to ensure that the multitude of densely positioned small cells (some the size of the page you’re reading) on which 5G’s high-frequencies operate, and other network-critical equipment can be placed expeditiously and economically.

  • Making the 5G network truly national

Assuring nationwide coverage will require combining swift and strong private-sector investments with supportive public policies to ensure that the buildout does not leave behind regions or communities, particularly rural areas and economically distressed communities. Covering underserved communities must be a focus area as we step into the 5G era.  

TRUSTED SUPPLY CHAIN

One of the largest end-to-end 5G equipment suppliers in the world is Huawei – a Chinese company subsidized by the Chinese government and bound by its law to assist China’s intelligence services. The U.S. government reports that China seeks broadband supply chain dominance, not for commercial and economic reasons alone. Dominating the supply chain gives China a strategic stranglehold on equipment vital to the global economy and electronic beachheads across the globe for espionage and coercion. US companies have much to contribute in providing 5G-critical components. Yet, notably, the US presently has no end-to-end 5G equipment supplier (chips, handsets, network core). Samsung, headquartered in South Korea, is the only Western ally having this end-to-end capability.

China has used its companies’ communication products and services to perform commercial and political espionage. Moreover, its equipment is embedded with remote alterable software which means China could conceivably disrupt or disable networks operating systems like the electrical grid, the banking system, transportation, military command and control networks, and all manner of other critical infrastructure.  Last May, President Trump issued a sweeping executive order calling for enforceable standards defining trusted supply chain for Information and Communications Technology (ICT). The order will have far-reaching implications for the wireless industry and its partners, wireless customers, and the economy: another way of saying…everyone!  Such standards should be based on the following pillars:

  •  Consensus-based definition of trusted supply chain

Enduring supply chain assurance requires that policies and standards be developed in consultation with all stakeholders at the table. Supply chain security should not be a fig leaf for protectionism or policies that leave trusted sources and allies out in the cold.

  • Supply chain resilience and dependability, along with security

Standard setting and policy must be mindful that the national interest is served not only by the trustful sourcing of critical componentry but by ICT supply chain that is resilient and dependable. 

  • Advanced methods of evaluating the integrity and security of microelectronic products

Sourcing components from trustful suppliers is vital. Securing networks, however, would be exceptionally well-served by the development of practical, tech-based methods and protocols for validating the trustworthiness of critical microelectronics. This will help assure supply chain security and resilience while lessening the possibility of creeping protectionism or a destructive trade war.

CYBERSECURITY

In the 5G-based Internet of Everything (IoE) era, it is no exaggeration to say that cybersecurity is synonymous with individual, enterprise, and national security. The 5G use cases described in the previous blog, particularly those encompassing critical national infrastructure, can put enormous destructive power in the hands of state-sponsored cyber-warriors and rogue hackers.

What a loss should the potential life improvements of 5G be undone by the failure to fully perceive the inherent vulnerabilities created by super-networking without proper cyber-safeguards. Industry and standard-setting bodies are making progress incorporating new security features into 5G components including wireless devices, operating systems, and apps. Cloud computing facilitated by 5G will enable greater “network virtualization” – which means that data can be stored, maintained and even processed in a decentralized manner where security can be customized, and intrusions or disruptions will be less consequential, compared to centralized storage in hardware. 

Yet, the US has far to go in fully securing 5G. cybersecurity is an unending process requiring exquisite cooperation across a broad spectrum of stakeholders. Securing broadband networks must be a national project, inspiring the public-private sector collaboration, innovation, and principled action that typically animates American purpose when the stakes are the highest. Moreover, securing the 5G world must be the focus of stronger international protocols and treaties to lessen the risk of cyberconflict, particularly given its potential to burst into kinetic war.

Success in this grand challenge will require American leadership. 5G leadership is more than economically and commercially essential, it is a geostrategic imperative. Whether the United States or China leads the way into the 5G future will have much to say about what the world looks like in the coming years and decades. The outcome will determine which country and what values undergird global norms and standards. America’s vision of 5G is rooted in economic empowerment, personal freedom, privacy protection, development, and stability. Conversely, 5G powers can be wielded to monitor and control populations, manipulate and coerce other countries, and threaten a progressive and prosperous world order. 

We have much work to do – commercially, politically, and diplomatically -- to ensure that the future is characterized by the former rather than the latter.