Losing 5G fight with China would be a disaster for US

The fifth and latest generation of wireless-network mobile communications, called 5G, will make communications exponentially faster than today — but it requires cellphone tower equipment to be no further from users than about 500 feet. (The distance between users and antennae for the current generation is about 20 miles.) For the U.S. alone, wireless companies such as Verizon, AT&T, Sprint and T-Mobile must install about 300,000 new antennas (adding to the 200,000 antennas already installed).

Yet, 5G has great benefits: All users will have more bandwidth, so connections will be fast even in high-density areas; the time between emails or texts being sent and received will be reduced to milliseconds; the downloading of files and streaming videos will take a few seconds. Moreover, increased speed will expand the number and capability of smart devices, like cameras, alarms and appliances; they will be able perform tasks now accomplished with a computer or a smartphone.{mosads}

China has several reasons to master 5G before anyone. The first is pride: With their reputation for copying and stealing from others, it would provide national satisfaction to outwit the competition. The second reason is money: 5G will allow the development and testing of technologies that, today, are difficult or impossible to monetize, much less mine for future application, such as self-driven cars and surveillance systems enhanced by artificial intelligence. 

A third reason is security — though, in China’s case, the word “control” is more accurate: 5G will allow unprecedented state surveillance at near instantaneous speeds, with virtually no delay in messaging. Our capacity to hinder China’s perfection of an Orwellian state and use that power to retain its unchallenged dominance of the Chinese people is limited. And Chinese dominance in 5G will add to its already considerable offensive military capability.

This is not a matter of speculation. The Wall Street Journal reported March 13 on China’s massive, ongoing cyber attacks against the U.S. Navy, the military branch best positioned to deter China’s growing regional aggression. One senior Navy official stated: “We are under siege,” dating at least to a 2006 Chinese cyber attack against the U.S. Naval War College that shut down its computer system for nearly two weeks. Chinese dominance in 5G would significantly assist in future attacks against not only the Navy but the entire U.S. military, thus degrading our ability to deter war with China.

The U.S. ability to encourage innovation should provide important advantages in applying 5G technology to revolutionize such fields as robotics, swarming military drones and such other defense applications as non-kinetic warfare, medical support, communications, cyber warfare, intelligence and targeting mobile platforms.

5G is not an end in itself, however. Its extraordinary advance in bandwidth and speed lays the foundations for a massive IoT/IIoT (Internet of Things/Industrial Internet of Things) expansion. IoT is a system of machines that contain computing devices connected to each other — smartphones, smartwatches, smart fridges, lightbulbs, TVs and so on; it will allow the transfer of data from one device to another without human interaction. Industrial Internet of Things, or IIoT, is the same concept applied to industrial equipment connected and synchronized, capable of interacting without (or with limited) human interaction.

The U.S. has an advantage in terms of what’s already available — Verizon and AT&T both sell 5G products — but China has an advantage in developing applications for 5G technology. It has built hundreds of antennas over broad swaths of land that the government has appropriated to test and improve the network. By comparison, the U.S. bureaucracy is binding our most advanced 5G companies in regulatory red tape and disputes, while local governments demur at the unsightly prospect of a multitude of antennae.

The competition with China to dominate in 5G cannot be won by standing in a pail and trying to lift it by the handle. And if China wins this race, it will have economic, technological, political and military advantages:

  • creating tens of thousands of jobs and earning wealth from the development, testing and sale of revolutionary technology;
  • “bragging rights” on the international level, a propaganda injury that will harm all American exports for years;
  • and, from the outset, enhanced surveillance and state control that extends the range of China’s ability to deny U.S. forces access to the Western Pacific while tightening and prolonging domestic controls in China — and, eventually, worldwide.

If China dominates the international 5G marketplace and sells its technology — phones, antennas, software for appliances; in short, everything that can be connected to the internet — it will be able to spy on every citizen or company in the U.S. and elsewhere. Identifying even a simple cyber espionage effort becomes an enormous task when dealing with potentially millions of devices that communicate in a millisecond in a new network.

With the release date of this new technology steadily approaching, what can the U.S. do to win?

As stated in the Presidential Memorandum on Developing a Sustainable Spectrum Strategy for America’s Future, “it is imperative that America be first in fifth-generation (5G) wireless technologies — wireless technologies capable of meeting the high-capacity, low-latency, and high-speed requirements that can unleash innovation broadly across diverse sectors of the economy and the public sector.”{mossecondads}

This means freeing American technological innovators from federal regulators’ spools of red tape. Equally important is to enact policies that use tax incentives, private/public partnerships and federal research monies to assist in developing American products that use 5G technology.

It means prohibiting Chinese 5G software and hardware from being bought and used in the U.S. and in all our overseas military commands and diplomatic posts. It means persuading allies and partners to purchase Western-manufactured 5G products.

On the enforcement side, it means using the interagency Committee on Foreign Investment in the U.S. (CFIUS) to keep the Chinese company Huawei — and other corporate instruments of Chinese policy — out of the U.S. market. It means working with our allies and friends to help protect them against exposure to Chinese 5G technology and its software/hardware manufacturers.

It means paying closer attention to China’s global “Belt and Road Initiative,” in particular the 5G products that will be sold there to construct a global surveillance system undreamt of by any intelligence agency. American dominance in 5G technology will offer a benign alternative and is an additional reason for achieving U.S. dominance in the field.

And it means redoubling our public diplomacy efforts to inform China’s people of their unelected government’s effort to surveil every element of their personal lives for the purpose of maintaining its hold on the country.

Seth Cropsey is a senior fellow at Hudson Institute and director of Hudson’s Center for American Seapower. He served as a naval officer and as deputy undersecretary of the U.S. Navy in the Reagan and George H. W. Bush administrations.

Andrea Rebora, a research assistant at Hudson Institute and graduate student at George Washington University specializing in cybersecurity and technology, contributed research. 

Tags 5G China Huawei Internet of Things Mobile telecommunications Technology

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