The race for 5G technological supremacy is on. US technology companies are competing against Chinese counterparts – namely telecom giant Huawei – for dominance of the next wave of wireless network technology.
That competition has led to a United States government crusade against Huawei that continues to grow in intensity. Keeping tabs on the up-and-down, rapidly-changing saga is easier said than done, especially when it seems like just about anything could happen. To understand the tension, it is important examine why control over 5G is important, how the story so far has played out, and where it seems to be going.
5G is Coming
5G is the fifth-generation evolution of wireless network technology. But 5G is not just a boon for smartphone users – as world economies increasingly digitize, faster wireless networks “will also affect many other kinds of devices, including industrial robots, security cameras, drones and cars that send traffic data to one another,” says Don Clark of the New York Times.
Civilians would enjoy tangible advantages – feature-length movies will be downloadable in seconds – but early dominance of 5G has even greater implications for business and government. Early developers (and subsequent patent-holders) of new technology gain prominent, profitable footholds; meanwhile US and Chinese officials “see 5G networks as a competitive edge…[that] could help spread the use of artificial intelligence and other cutting-edge technologies.”
The United States vs. China
That edge is important to the Chinese, whose influence has grown massively in recent years, as they seek to continue their upwards climb on the world stage. Huawei, who have evolved from seller of inexpensive telephone equipment to a multibillion-dollar business working with the world’s cell network providers, has been investing significant resources in 5G research for a decade in hopes of cementing their place as 5G’s dominant force.
The US government, however, is actively working to ensure this doesn’t happen. The president has threatened to sign an executive order banning US companies from using Huawei equipment in their networks and have asked allies in Europe and elsewhere to do the same. They allege that using Huawei equipment would create a security vulnerability that, in the age of cyberwarfare, would have massive security implications.
Essentially, 5G network control means “[controlling] the information flow [over the network]” – which means the ability to “change, reroute or copy data without users’ knowledge.” The United States argues that the Chinese government’s increasingly authoritarian tendencies (and subsequent blurring of lines between government and private business) mean the potential – even likely – inclusion of so-called ‘back doors’ into the network that would allow government hackers entry “into telecom and computing networks…to intercept military, government and corporate communications.”
The Rest of the World
US allies, who have their own diplomatic relationships to maintain with China, expressed skepticism as to whether the push had actual security implications, or if it is simply a way for the United States to maintain their competitive edge. Some typically reliable allies, like Germany, the United Arab Emirates, and India, believe that any potential threats can be mitigated and are not enough to outweigh the economic advantages of using more-affordable Huawei equipment.
But recent findings suggest the US government’s claims may carry weight. A British government report from an oversight board specifically created to evaluate Huawei’s operations found “serious and systematic defects in Huawei’s software engineering and cyber security competence.” The report details concerns poor “end-to-end integrity” of source code and minimal oversight over the suppliers who make Huawei’s equipment – issues that mean Huawei cannot “replicate much of the software it built…[so that] authorities could not be sure what code was being introduced into the country’s wireless networks.”
The company has pledged significant outlay over the next five years to fixing vulnerabilities, but British officials remained wary, stating in the report that “Strongly worded commitments from Huawei in the past haven’t brought about any discernible improvements.”
No End in Sight
The British report further muddies already murky waters. In January, the United States Justice Department filed charges against Huawei and indicted its CFO for “a decade-long attempt…to steal trade secrets, obstruct a criminal investigation and evade economic sanctions on Iran.” Then, in early March, Huawei sued the US government for what it deems unfair treatment. “The U.S. Congress has repeatedly failed to produce any evidence to support its restrictions on Huawei products,” said Huawei chairman Guo Ping in a statement, calling the legal action “a proper and last resort.”
The case will force the US to be more transparent about its allegations against Huawei – an action supported by the Chinese government. Whether it means upholding the ban is another matter. If previous events are any indication, more twists and turns are to follow, and 5G supremacy – and subsequent security concerns – will continue to hang in the balance.