The news of the last month has not been good for America’s prospects for leading the future of telecommunications. We’ve been outpaced and outsold by the Chinese IT giant Huawei, which just signed Austria as its latest client for building and maintaining its 5G networks—this, despite Huawei’s long record as a cyber thief and auxiliary to the Chinese government and military.
The stakes are huge. Future wireless 5G networks spanning the planet will enable everything from AI-supported phones and driverless cars to the smart grid, as well as governments’ access to data and networks essential to their functions, including their military. According to the Communications Technology Industry Association, here in the United States the technologies 5G would unleash could create 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 telecommunications colossus of the 21st century, don’t expect that impact to be good for democracy or freedom.
Our slow pace on 5G isn’t just due to Huawei’s slick salesmanship. Our telecommunication industry never arrived at a single competitive standard for 5G technology, and our efforts to get allies like Britain and Germany to reconsider their support for Huawei, have been ineffectual. At the Mobile World Congress last month, the efforts were pathetic.
To win the 5G race, leadership from the Trump administration will be essential. Our telecom operators sorely need direction on this issue—and the rest of the world needs someone to stand up to China’s bid for telecom hegemony.
This means pushing back on four fronts.
One, expose Huawei’s appalling record as corporate wrong-doer.
Talk early and often about their theft of T-Mobile intellectual property and Cisco’s source codes (both lawsuits were settled confidentially). Talk about reports that, starting in 2013 Huawei launched a formal policy to pay bonuses to employees to stole confidential information from competitors. Reveal why Huawei’s CFO was arrested for violating international agreements regarding sanctions against Iran. Expose the company’s deep ties to the Chinese military and intelligence agencies. Make every Western company and country answer the question: why are you taking on Huawei as a trusted partner for 5G?
Two, level with allies on the consequences of working with Huawei for future cooperation with the U.S.
To date eighty countries have agreements with Huawei regarding future 5G networks, including several NATO allies. We need to make it clear that if they can’t support us in our competition with China in this vital area, we aren’t going to feel compelled to support them where it counts for them, including protecting them from aggressors like China, Russia, and Iran.
The global military balance is the one sphere where 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 with allies, and in regard to 5G in particular.
In addition, the possibility that the U.S. might deny roaming rights to foreign telecom companies that sign on with Huawei, could help to focus allies on what really matters in this competition for 5G—and which side they really want to be on.
Three, raise the quantum flag.
Unless future 5G networks are quantum resistant and quantum capable, they will be out-of-date in ten to fifteen years, which raises the specter of having to rip out and replace very expensive infrastructure such as fiber optic networks that will be installed by Huawei from the Rock of Gibraltar to the Elbe basin. The U.S. can lead the way here by requiring quantum capability for our own 5G standards. It won’t happen otherwise, and it can provide a competitive edge over Huawei’s failure to offer the same safety and security standard.
Finally, it’s past time to get our own 5G act together.
As noted in an earlier post, America needs to unveil a new model for expanding access to spectrum through a wholesale market. We also need to arrive at a competitive 5G standard that others, including U.S. companies, can follow and invest in. Failure to achieve these standards, and relying on a monopolistic spectrum allocation system by auction that artificially inflates costs, have been the biggest blows to American interests. Our leading telecom operators aren’t going to correct course without leadership from the Oval Office.
Sometimes relying on the private sector to figure out the best way to advance new technologies by themselves, without a national strategy, is a mistake. If we had done that, we would have lost both World War Two and the race to the moon. The future of 5G, and the technologies it depends on, may well represent the same race for the future. The U.S. can’t afford to lose it, and neither can our allies.