The struggle for global supremacy between the United States and China has come to rest on a single vital battlefield: advanced wireless telecommunication, or 5G.
5G telecommunication technology represents a revolution in how we will connect to the Internet, and everything else. Future wireless 5G networks will span the planet, enabling everything from AI-supported smartphones and driverless cars to the smart grid, as well as governments’ access to data and networks essential to their functions, including their defense establishments. According to the Communications Technology Industry Association, in the United States alone the technologies enabled by 5G would spawn upwards of three million new jobs and $500 billion in economic growth. The impact on the rest of the world, including Africa and Southeast Asia, could be even greater.
But if China becomes the 5G hegemon of the 21st century, America will be increasingly relegated to the past, rather than the future, of advanced technologies.
The Pentagon’s Defense Innovation Board released a report this year that stated, “Carriers to date have not demonstrated deployment capability that would deliver high speeds to large parts of the U.S. population.” The DIB warns, “The country that owns 5G will own” future innovations such as autonomous vehicles and the Internet of Things. Under today’s policies, “that country is currently not likely to be the United States.”
China and its hand-picked 5G corporate colossus, Huawei, are poised to bestride the globe with Huawei’s version of 5G technology. At the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona last February, Huawei had more than 64 countries signed up to either use or test its 5G networks — this despite the long history of allegations that Huawei is a serial cyber and IP thief and tool of the Chinese military and intelligence services.
Today that number has grown to more than 90. More than 60 percent of Huawei’s contracts are on the European continent (some countries have more than one carrier using Huawei technology), including many leading U.S. allies.
China’s success isn’t just due to Huawei’s offer of highly favorable terms for building 5G’s capital-intensive infrastructure from thousands of cell towers to miles of fiber-optic cable, including credits from Chinese banks. The Trump administration’s current efforts to get countries to reconsider their support for Huawei, and join our ban on Huawei technology, have failed.
Even more important, our own telecommunications industry still hasn’t arrived at a workable 5G standard that can make the technology interoperable and secure and that can build an effective supply chain that networks can rely on, without having to turn to Huawei components.
In order to win the 5G race, then, the Trump administration needs to reset its approach and adopt a four-pronged national strategy.
First, continue to expose the well-founded allegations about Huawei as a corporate wrongdoer and a tool of the Chinese military and intelligence agencies. But also make allies understand that if they aren’t willing to work with us in this vital area, we aren’t going to feel compelled to support them where it counts for them. The global military balance is the one sphere in which the U.S. is still absolutely indispensable to other democracies around the world. We need to leverage that essential role in order to reestablish our leadership in 5G.
Second, we need to get our own 5G house in order by launching a new model for expanding access to spectrum through a wholesale market. Clearing spectrum takes too long and costs too much — up to a decade and $17 billion, according to the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology. Sharing even a portion of Pentagon-controlled spectrum will accelerate the buildout of privately financed, privately operated shared networks. It will also provide a model for the rest of the world — and an alternative to cheap Chinese money and subsidized Huawei equipment.
Third, United States carriers need to develop a truly global 5G standard to compete with China. Chinese carriers will use a spectrum band similar to what they used for 3G and 4G, which will allow them to reuse a number of their existing cell sites. Carriers such as AT&T and Verizon, however, plan to use a high-frequency band in which signals travel less far, and which consequently will require three to four times as many cell sites as 4G did. We need a standard aimed squarely at the mid-spectrum market.
Fourth, we need sound the quantum and post-quantum alarm. If 5G networks aren’t resistant to intrusion and disruption by a future quantum computer, which would be able to penetrate asymmetric encryption of data, and aren’t capable of using future quantum technologies, such as quantum keys. for protecting that data, they will be obsolete, even dangerous to use, in ten to 15 years. America can lead the world in requiring post-quantum security and quantum capability for our own 5G standards. While China is striving to make its own 5G networks quantum-safe, it’s not going to do the same for the networks it builds elsewhere — for obvious reasons. Here’s where America can offer a competitive quantum edge — one that protects our allies and ourselves for years to come.
In the end, America can’t achieve an effective 5G strategy without leadership from the White House. Without that, we would have lost World War II and the race to the moon. The future of 5G, and the other amazing technologies it will support, represent the same race for the future. The U.S. can’t afford to lose this time, either.