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The Technology 202: Lawmakers fret about China's investment in 5G

with Bastien Inzaurralde

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The race to be the first country to convert to 5G wireless networks is on -- and the U.S. and China both want to win. 

Lawmakers on both sides are already making it a top priority this Congress to ensure the U.S. moves swiftly to deploy next-generation wireless networks so China doesn't beat it to the punch.

The stakes are high: The country that first widely adopts 5G -- which will bring far faster download speeds and the ability to run billions more devices on mobile networks, including self-driving cars-- will gain a competitive edge on the world stage.

So much so, Sen. Roger Wicker (R-Miss.) said, that 5G has the potential to usher in a fourth industrial revolution. And losing that potential edge to China would be unthinkable, said Wicker, the chair of the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation. 

"Failing to win the race to 5G would not only materially delay the benefits of 5G for the American people, it would forever reduce the economic and societal gains that come from leading the world in technology,” Wicker said at the committee's first hearing of the year, which was focused on 5G. 

The hearing highlighted the sense of urgency in Washington to work with industry on facilitating the 5G rollout, particularly in ensuring enough critical mid-band spectrum is available to ensure the United States can keep pace with global competitors. Contracts that will shape the fundamentals of these networks will be negotiated in 2019, even though it will likely take five or more years for the system to be fully up and running.

With their eyes on winning this digital arms race against China, lawmakers also said they’re focused on ensuring that industry adopts key safeguards against cyberthreats and considers consumer privacy as 5G services are expected to allow technology to grow ever more pervasive.

Lawmakers heard a sobering account of China’s coordinated strategy to make widespread 5G a reality. Michael Wessel, a U.S.-China Economic & Security Review commissioner, told lawmakers that China is poised to invest at least $400 billion at this point into its 5G development. China is also increasingly trying to exert its influence over international standard-setting groups such as the Global International Telecommunications Union to benefit Chinese companies. China chairs more of the organization’s committees than any other country, Wessel said, stoking concerns among lawmakers.

“We have no comparable plans here in the U.S.,” Wessel told lawmakers in his opening testimony.

Congress is renewing its attention on 5G as the Trump administration signals that executive action is coming on next-generation wireless, which is among the “cutting-edge industries of the future,” Trump said in his State of the Union address this week.  

“Within the coming weeks we could expect to see action designed to preserve American R&D leadership in artificial intelligence, 5G, and the first deliverables from the National Quantum Initiative Act,” an administration official told me in a statement Wednesday.

For their part, lawmakers could consider legislative proposals like the Airwaves Act, which was introduced in the last Congress to require the Federal Communications Commission to hold auctions over the next three years to grant licenses for certain spectrum bands that would enable 5G. That bill, which stalled in Congress, would have also allocated funding from the auctions to ensure that 5G is expanded in rural areas that have been previously left behind in such transitions.

5G is in its early stages of deployment in certain parts of the United States. In Silicon Valley, companies are eagerly investing in new technologies that will rely on faster wireless networks -- such as artificial intelligence or augmented reality. 

The United States knows firsthand how much is at stake in this global race against China. The United States led the world on 4G wireless technology, which enabled a generation of new smartphone services that earlier networks wouldn’t have had the capacity to support.

“Ten years ago, no one imagined Uber or countless other companies that are dependent upon the 4G platform,” said Brad Gillen, the executive vice president of CTIA, an industry group representing wireless companies. “We are just scratching the surface.”

But China’s coordinated approach makes it a formidable opponent in the dash to herald the next era of wireless. The massive scale of Internet users in China make it one of the world’s most lucrative digital markets, and the country is going to prioritize its top domestic companies as 5G rolls out. Huawei and ZTE have each been promised a third of the 5G market in China, according to Wessel. That could create a scramble among foreign suppliers for the remaining third. 

More concerning is how those companies could influence the market outside China. China’s companies are deeply intertwined with the state, particularly under a 2018 national intelligence law that requires companies to support and assist national intelligence, Wessel said. The United States is concerned about the cybersecurity and surveillance threat that Chinese companies could pose if they supply the gear that enables the backbone of so many essential digital services.

The United States is warning European allies to not use Chinese equipment for 5G networks, according to a Tuesday report from Reuters. The Trump administration has weighed an executive order that would give the commerce secretary the authority to block U.S. deals involving foreign telecommunications equipment. 

“China’s innovation efforts are broad and deep,” Wessel warned the committee. “China wants to be a global innovation leader and is doing all it can legally and illegally to achieve its goals.”


BITS: Germany’s competition watchdog told Facebook that its Whatsapp and Instagram services cannot combine data they collect with a user’s main Facebook account unless that user gives voluntary consent, according BBC News. The regulator also ruled that Facebook needs user permission to gather data from third-party websites and assign it to a person’s Facebook account.

The decision would severely restrict the social network’s current data collection practices. Facebook plans to appeal the decision, according to the BBC. Though the restrictions only apply to Facebook’s services in Germany, it could prompt other countries to consider similar rules. 

Facebook has one month to challenge the ruling before it becomes legally effective. “If the order is upheld, the company must develop technical solutions to ensure it complies within four months. If it refused to do so, it could in theory be fined up to 10% of its annual revenues,” the BBC reported.

NIBBLES: Executives from T-Mobile including chief executive John Legere have booked more nights than previously reported at the Trump International Hotel in the District since the company asked the Trump administration to approve its merger with Sprint last yearThe Washington Post’s Jonathan O'Connell, David A. Fahrenthold and Mike DeBonis reported. My colleagues found that T-Mobile executives have booked at least 52 nights at the hotel since then – adding another 14 nights to the 38 that were previously reported. And the executives’ bookings have attracted the attention of two Democratic lawmakers.

Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.) have sent a pair of letters to Trump Organization officials and to Legere to demand answers including on how the bookings came about. “These transactions raise questions about whether T-Mobile is attempting to curry favor with the President through the Trump Organization and exacerbate our concerns about the President's continued financial relationship with the Trump Organization,” Warren and Jayapal wrote. The lawmakers also asked how much money T-Mobile officials spent at the hotel.

BYTES: WhatsApp said it deletes 2 million accounts per month in an effort to curb the spread of disinformation as the company released a white paper in India on “stopping abuse” of the platform, according to the Guardian's Michael Safi. India is WhatsApp's biggest market with more than 200 million users and the company has faced criticism from Indian authorities as mob lynchings have been fueled by rumors spreading on the messaging service.

Carl Woog, head of communications for WhatsApp, said Indian political parties are abusing the platform as the country is set to hold a general election by May, Reuters's Sankalp Phartiyal and Aditya Kalra reported. “We have seen a number of parties attempt to use WhatsApp in ways that it was not intended, and our firm message to them is that using it in that way will result in bans of our service,” Woog said.

As the Guardian reported, WhatsApp also said it is using machine learning to spot accounts that appear to spread messages in large quantities — the company limits the number of message forwards to five in India and said last month that it is expanding the rule globally.


— Industry analysts say Apple's stores have lost some of their shine as they lack features to inspire loyalty among consumers, The Washington Post's Hamza Shaban reported. Daniel Ives, an analyst at Wedbush Securities, said product launches recently and events at the company's stores were disappointing. “The last few years have really been void of the lines around the store, sleeping at the store, waiting for the product,” Ives told my colleague. “Part of it is that customers have gotten used to the Apple Store — there is no longer the wow factor.”

— About 1,500 people in the United States have been injured in incidents involving electric scooters since late 2017, according to an investigation from Consumer Reports's Ryan Felton. Doctors say they have treated serious injuries since electric scooters from companies such as Lime and Bird were deployed in cities across the country. “We’ve had multiple concussions, nasal fractures, bilateral forearm fractures, and some people have required surgery,” Beth Rupp, medical director at the Indiana University Health Center in Bloomington, Ind., told Consumer Reports.

— Telecommunications companies sold sensitive customer location information known as “assisted GPS” data to third-party companies who in turn sold it to bounty huntersMotherboard's Joseph Cox reported. Such assisted GPS or A-GPS data is meant for use by first responders to locate people who call 911 during emergencies. Motherboard also reported that about 250 bounty hunters and other third-party companies had access to the location data of AT&T, T-Mobile and Sprint customers.

— More technology news from the private sector:

Uber’s Next Battleground in the Quest for 1 Billion Users: The Middle East’s Tech-Savvy Youth (The Wall Street Journal)

IBM develops new technology to help prevent power outages (Reuters)

Amazon Recorded Video Of A Seller's Face For Identification Purposes (BuzzFeed News)


— A larger number of cities than previously reported have experimented with the predictive policing software PredPol, which claims to use a machine-learning algorithm to predict and help prevent crime, according to Motherboard's Caroline Haskins. The software claims that it can predict where crime is likely to occur in areas of 500 feet by 500 feet by using historical crime data so that law enforcement can increase patrols in specific places. Motherboard obtained PredPol documents from police departments in states including California, Utah, Georgia and Washington.

Shahid Buttar, director of grass-roots advocacy at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, warned about bias in predictive policing. Predictive policing is “driven by what seems to be objective historical data that itself reflects longstanding and pervasive bias,” Buttar told Haskins. 

— Yvette D. Clarke (D-N.Y.) warned that the United States must not fall behind in the race to 5G as other countries including China are also making a push into the technology, the Hill's Cady Stanton reported. “It will put us at a disadvantage if we are late to the game,” Clarke said during an event that was hosted by the Hill and sponsored by Qualcomm. “Our companies are already sort of leaders in this space, and if we allow other companies around the world to hit that sweet spot around 5G before we do, imagine what it would mean in terms of the shrinking of our access to the market.”

— More technology news from the public sector:

Uber's Jump may get nod for e-scooters in SF (San Francisco Chronicle)

Inside Wisconsin’s Disastrous $4.5 Billion Deal With Foxconn (Bloomberg News)


— News about tech workforce and culture:

Instacart Changes Tips, Payment Policy After Uproar (The Wall Street Journal)

"I’m moving out of state": How some Uber and Airbnb employees are trying to avoid California income tax (Recode)

Oracle Didn’t See the Data Reckoning Coming (Bloomberg News)


— Tech news generating buzz around the Web:

Disability campaigners give 👍 to new emojis for 2019 (The Guardian)

Ruth Bader Ginsburg was seen in public Monday. Conspiracy theorists still insist she’s dead. (Eli Rosenberg and Abby Ohlheiser)


— Caryn Marooney, Facebook's vice president of communications, is leaving the company, Wired's Issie Lapowsky reported.


— Some hackers and scammers are taking part in an “underground industry” that focuses on removing the iCloud account of a user from their iPhone so that the device can be resold, Motherboard's Joseph Cox and Jason Koebler reported. If the iCloud account of a user whose iPhone was stolen is still on the device, that allows the victim to remotely lock the phone and track it down by using the Find My iPhone feature — and that's why resellers or thieves may seek to remove the iCloud account.

“In practice, ‘iCloud unlock’ as it’s often called, is a scheme that involves a complex supply chain of different scams and cybercriminals,” Motherboard reported. “These include using fake receipts and invoices to trick Apple into believing they’re the legitimate owner of the phone, using databases that look up information on iPhones, and social engineering at Apple Stores.” However, Motherboard also noted that “not all iCloud-locked phones are stolen devices.”

— More news about tech incidents and blunders:

Nest issues cryptic warning — spoiler alert, it’s about strangers peeking your cameras (The Verge)


— Today in funding news:

Spending by SoftBank Vision Fund Raises Need for More Cash (The Wall Street Journal)

Spotify has bought two podcast startups and it wants to buy more (Recode)

Meditation App Backed by Ashton Kutcher Valued at $1 Billion (Bloomberg News)

Lime raises another $310 million, bringing its valuation to $2.4 billion (VentureBeat)



Coming soon:

  • The Brookings Institution holds a panel discussion titled “Smart cities and artificial intelligence” on Feb. 11.

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Trump's remarks on ISIS, in one minute:

Here are key moments from President Trump's Feb. 6 remarks to world leaders on the fight against Islamic State militants. (Video: The Washington Post)

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