The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Trump says ‘America must win’ the 5G race. Here’s what you need to know.

Beyond the hype, what are the promises and the risks?

A photo illustration displays Huawei's 5G network logo. (Dado Ruvic/Reuters)

The race for 5G is on, and America must win.” That was President Trump last Friday, announcing new federal initiatives to speed the deployment of 5G networks.

Major telecommunications companies seem to agree, with industry representatives promising that “5G is the platform for tomorrow’s economy,” transforming “everything from education to AI to medicine.”

But 5G also comes with potentially enormous security risks, and the U.S. government has responded by banning components made by several Chinese companies from its 5G networks and pressuring its allies to do the same.

Here are five things that can put 5G in perspective:

1. 5G is an evolutionary — not revolutionary — advance in technology.

5G (“fifth generation”) communications standards will extend rather than replace the current 4G infrastructure. 5G protocols can improve three kinds of applications.

First, 5G can bring better speed and reliability to mobile broadband, particularly in areas with a high density of users. Second, 5G can enable high reliability and low latency (i.e., fast response time) in communications where necessary, for example, in autonomous vehicles. Finally, 5G technology could enable communication between myriad machines for which speed is less essential, as expected in the Internet of Things, which has already begun to provide online control over door locks, lighting, thermostats and much more.

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Each of these 5G applications improves on existing capabilities, but it is premature to predict revolution. In fact, Huawei Chairman Eric Xu recently argued that most consumers would notice “no material difference between” 4G and 5G technologies. Many U.S. tech experts share this view, arguing that it doesn’t matter whether the United States lags behind China in its 5G deployment.

2. The “race for 5G” obscures other equally or more important options.

So what is the 5G “race” about? Some analysts argue that telecom giants are using “5G hype” to push aside regulations that protect many Americans. For example, the Federal Communications Commission ruled that cities must quickly approve or deny requests to deploy 5G infrastructure, and prohibited denying requests based on concerns about historical preservation or environmental health.

The 5G race also distracts from the fact that U.S. broadband is slower and more expensive than broadband in much of Europe and parts of Asia. 5G will not solve America’s broadband problems, which stem from cable monopolies and a lack of support for optical fiber infrastructure, particularly in rural and poor communities. Winning a broadband “race” would entail policies that encourage more competition and deploying optical fiber to homes — which can provide faster broadband than 5G ever will.

But focusing on any technological race unhelpfully narrows our understanding of the options. In fact, 5G wireless depends on fiber, and wireless offers mobility that fiber alone does not. Achieving better broadband for all Americans requires designing policies to support an appropriate set of technologies.

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3. 5G may bring new dangers, depending on how it’s used.

U.S. infrastructure is already vulnerable to some kinds of attacks that 5G might enable. Existing systems are vulnerable to espionage; the U.S. and other countries already use telecom networks for surveillance. Additionally, recent U.S. intelligence assessments note that the United States is already vulnerable to cyberattacks on its critical infrastructure. China is capable of destructive attacks “such as disruption of a natural gas pipeline for days to weeks,” and Russia has a similar capability.

What makes 5G newly dangerous is not likely the protocol itself, which may be more secure than 4G. Rather, the new danger lies in using 5G to control massive numbers of machines — including autonomous vehicles, factory processes and much more. This means that hackers could exploit vulnerabilities in 5G or the equipment used to control such systems, doing much more damage than is now possible. Imagine, for example, hacked driverless vehicles creating massive pileups on U.S. highways.

4. Banning Huawei and ZTE provides relatively little security.

A small section of the 2018 U.S. Defense Authorization Act bars the U.S. government and its contractors from using components made by Huawei, ZTE and other Chinese companies for telecommunications systems in which those components might be “essential” or “critical.” Additionally, Trump recently considered an executive order to ban Huawei components from all U.S. telecommunications networks — not just governmental systems.

Huawei and others were targeted for reasons including a history of intellectual property theft; close ties to the Chinese government; and China’s 2017 National Intelligence Law, which requires Chinese companies to cooperate with state intelligence agencies.

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However, the major alternative 5G equipment suppliers — Finland’s Nokia and Sweden’s Ericsson — manufacture equipment in Chinese factories with partners linked to the Chinese Communist Party, making it impossible to deploy 5G without some dependence on Chinese suppliers.

Meanwhile, the costs of banning Huawei and ZTE are likely to fall hardest on rural cooperatives and smaller organizations. Unlike the telecommunications giants, which have avoided Chinese components for several years, these smaller companies have relied more heavily on relatively inexpensive Huawei components and will be harder hit if they must replace existing infrastructure.

Similarly, European companies such as Britain’s Vodafone, Germany’s Deutsche Telekom and Telecom Italia, have relied on Huawei for 4G networks and argue that a Huawei ban will make their 5G rollout unaffordable and slow. This is one reason that European companies have resisted U.S. pressures to ban Huawei components and why NATO recently argued that banning Huawei would be shortsighted.

5. Improving security requires reckoning with pervasive social and technical vulnerabilities.

Most cyberattacks don’t come from compromised foreign products; instead they exploit known but persistent vulnerabilities, such as unpatched software and people who are easily phished. Strategies that focus solely on nations and organizations that may pose a threat, while neglecting the social and technical vulnerabilities that attackers exploit, will inevitably fail.

A real danger, then, is that the 5G hype might obscure the full range of technological options — as well as the full range of potential security threats and vulnerabilities in an increasingly wired and wireless world.

Rebecca Slayton is an associate professor at the Department of Science & Technology Studies and director of the Judith Reppy Institute for Peace and Conflict Studies, both at Cornell University.