Imagine you open up the Uber app and order a ride. A few minutes later the car shows up, you hop in, and arrive safely at your destination, all without having to endure painful small talk with the driver. How? Because this is a self-automated vehicle. Self-driving cars will be possible in the next few decades due to 5G networks, the newest frontier of wireless networks. Besides automated vehicles, 5G will allow for huge technological advances like remote surgeries, smarter artificial intelligence, improvements in factory production, etc. It’s increased speed alone will be attractive to everyday consumers. For example, on 5G a two-hour movie can be downloaded in less than 10 seconds, but on 4G this may take several minutes .
Before society can benefit from 5G’s increased speed, bandwidth, and latency (the time it takes devices to communicate with each other), it must invest in proper technology and infrastructure . While many countries are becoming involved in the development of 5G technologies, China is a clear leader in the race. China has already spent billions on 5G development and infrastructure, and recent reports estimate it will spend another $150 billion by 2025. Additionally, analysts predict China will have 4.9 million 5G base stations by 2030 . Chinese technology is also the cheapest on the market up-front, making it attractive to countries who want to invest in 5G.
This poses potential security risks for the United States in the intelligence sphere. Specifically, the U.S. is concerned by the potential for the Chinese government to eavesdrop on the foreign communications of countries. Backdoors installed in 5G networks for maintenance can easily be used for malicious purposes, and laws in China require Chinese companies to hand over data to the government “no matter where it was acquired” . Huawei, the frontrunner in Chinese technology, has long denied this claim, but American intelligence officials and politicians believe that international privacy could be compromised. Thus, the Trump administration is urging U.S. allies to buy 5G technology from companies outside of China.
In January, Great Britain announced it would not ban Huawei equipment, despite intense lobbying from the U.S. . This was devastating to the United States’ efforts to keep allies from using Chinese equipment, and the fact that Britain is part of an intelligence alliance with Australia, Canada, and New Zealand adds to concerns about how the U.S. will share its intelligence in the future.
Although U.S. officials are concerned with Great Britain’s choice, there are some who say that their decision isn’t a threat. Huawei equipment won’t be involved in military bases, nuclear sites, or areas of Britain’s Critical National Infrastructure. Furthermore, Britain is limiting the amount of network Huawei is allowed to control to 35% . Current 5G coverage is patchy, and limited to large cities, so the next few years will reveal how powerful Huawei can actually be in British 5G.
Britain is one of many countries that are in a difficult position when deciding which side to choose in the 5G debate. The U.S. has threatened to withhold information from countries that utilize Chinese 5G equipment, but China has also threatened economic retaliation if countries ban Chinese equipment . There are other Western companies, like Nokia, Ericcson, and T-Mobile, that are investing and implementing 5G technology, but Huawei has more advanced and potentially cheaper technology that is tempting as a short-term solution. .
The U.S. still has a chance to push ahead of China by using its own innovative capacity . Experts say the U.S. should focus on software development, such as repurposing mid-band spectrums for 5G capability. While the level of technology between the U.S. and China may be similar, the rollout strategy can set the U.S. apart from China. The U.S. could block mergers and acquisitions in order to limit the number of companies able to sell 5G technology .
Fortunately, this isn’t a partisan issue. At the Senate Judiciary Committee’s hearing on 5G technology in May 2019, Republican and Democrat senators alike expressed concern at this national security threat. Sen. Lindsey Graham commented on the bipartisan nature of the hearing.
The next few years of development will reveal which parts of the world utilize Chinese 5G equipment. If the U.S. wants to protect its intelligence from potential adversaries, it needs to prevent countries from buying Chinese equipment, cut ties with countries that use Chinese equipment, or give countries better 5G options. This new internet frontier has the potential to further complicate the already tense relationship between the two powerhouse countries.
 Senate Judiciary Hearing on 5G Technology, May 20, 2019.
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