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Boris Johnson’s 5G Dilemma
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Boris Johnson’s 5G Dilemma

Arthur Herman

I took a break from this space for a few months while I was finishing the manuscript of my new book (about which more later). Now that I’m back, I’m going to use my first few columns in 2020 to survey the state of high-tech in America and around the world. The best place to start is the subject I used to write about a lot, 5G wireless technology. Unfortunately, things haven’t gotten better in my absence. So it’s time to take a fresh look at what’s going wrong, and what we need to do about it, starting with the latest news from Great Britain.

Prime minister Boris Johnson’s decision to allow Huawei to build parts of Britain’s future 5G network has raised hackles this side of the Atlantic, and rightly so. So even as Verizon was busy wowing Super Bowl fans yesterday with their ads for 5G, China’s march toward world domination of that wireless technology continues.

Johnson has been warned many times this action would displease the Trump administration and US national security officials. The evidence supporting U.S. allegations of Huawei collusion with Chinese military and intelligence services, and of underhanded practices, seems overwhelming. Our intel officials even made a special trip to London to further lift the veil on how bad Huawei’s practices have been.

All to no avail, it seems. British officials have tried to mitigate the furor by assuring us that they won’t allow Huawei to touch the so-called “core” elements of the 5G network, and won’t let Huawei near classified or sensitive data, including military data.

But these arguments are meaningless, or beside the point. It’s true that historically countries have protected sensitive information and functions at the core of their telecommunications networks. But with 5G the distinction between core and edge disappears. A potential threat anywhere in the network will be a threat to the whole network.

As for classified data, most of it will be encrypted anyway. The issue is the vast amount of unclassified data that 5G will generate, more than twenty times the amount in current wireless networks. Huawei will be in a position to collect and share that information with Big Data and AI—wielding Chinese intelligence services and military, to help them plan their anti-Western strategy, and to wage “fake news” disinformation campaigns while disrupting messaging and sites they don’t like.

In the end, the issue isn’t whether Huawei builds this or that part of the network, or what percentage of the overall network the Chinese company manages. It’s having Huawei there in the first place.

But Johnson does have a point when he asks, what’s my alternative to Huawei. Embarrassingly, the U.S. still hasn’t offered one—at least not yet.

It doesn’t make sense to scold allies and other countries for going the Huawei route, if there’s no U.S.-backed and U.S.-based alternative to offer.

One option lies with the Pentagon. The Defense Department has been touting a plan for mapping out an alternative 5G, that involves what it calls “dynamic spectrum sharing” between the military and industry, that will enable it to make an end-run around Huawei networks. Thus far, however, that plan has gained little traction.

Another would be for the White House to convene a consortium of American companies involved in 5G, including carriers like Verizon and AT&T and technology companies like Qualcomm and Cisco, as well as trusted foreign 5G companies like Nokia; to hammer out a single global standard for 5G, that would necessarily include implementation of encryption applications to protect against quantum attack and intrusion—applications that would also protect networks against conventional attack and malign intrusion.

This plan, however, would require robust leadership and constant attention from the White House starting with the president himself—as well as considerable funds that our capital-strapped telecoms aren’t able to provide themselves.

The third option would be a complete game-changer of the sort we’ve advocated in this space before . That’s taking a radical wholesale market approach to allocating spectrum used for 5G in order to build an entirely different, more economically efficient 5G from the ground up, starting with its actual users like Amazon and Comcast. Such a proposal already exists in the shape of a Request For Proposals (RFP) at the Pentagon, which would contribute a share of the midrange spectrum it has reserved for its use—the same midrange that Huawei is seeking to dominate.

Thus far, however, no one has had the political will to pull the trigger on releasing the RFP, for fear the big telecoms like AT&T and Verizon would oppose it.

Other alternatives have been put forward: a virtual 5G, for example, and an entire 5G network built out on high-end spectrum. None has gained any political purchase. Instead, while Verizon, AT&T, and TMobile squabble among themselves about whose future 5G networks will be better, the technology that the U.S. pioneered has been steadily falling into the hands of our international competitor, China and its stalking horse Huawei.

It’s time the U.S. take the lead, not just in scolding uncooperative allies but in showing them the way forward on 5G. Otherwise, it won’t matter how many great ads American companies will be running at future Super Bowls. It’s Huawei, and China, that will be doing the victory dance in the end zone.

Read in Forbes

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