How 5G Will Shape Innovation and Security

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A Primer

Executive Summary

  • The fifth generation of mobile network technologies, known as “5G,” promises greater speed, security, and capacity. 5G will underpin the internet economy and provide the backbone for the next generation of digital technologies. So, it is unsurprising that there is intense competition among companies and countries for 5G leadership.
  • 5G will determine the direction the internet will take and where nations will face new risks and vulnerabilities. Who makes 5G technologies will affect security and innovation in an increasingly competitive technological environment. Decisions made today about 5G will affect national security and economic performance for decades to come.
  • This is a competition among companies and groups of companies but also a competition between market-based and state-directed decisionmaking. The United States has relied on the former, China on the latter, and Europe falls somewhere in between.
  • American technology remains essential for 5G mobile telecommunications. American companies have been strong performers in developing 5G technologies, but the United States and its allies face a fundamental challenge from China. The focus of competition is over 5G’s intellectual property, standards, and patents. Huawei, for example, has research programs to develop alternatives to American suppliers, and U.S. trade restrictions have accelerated China’s efforts to develop its own 5G industry.
  • While American companies lead in making essential 5G technologies, there are no longer any U.S. manufacturers of core telecommunications network equipment. Four companies dominate the market for the core network technologies needed for 5G networks. None of these companies are American. 1The choices are between European security partners (Ericsson and Nokia) and China (Huawei and ZTE).
  • Telecom is a strategic industry and having two companies with close ties to a hostile power creates risk for the United States and its allies. A secure supply chain for 5G closes off dangerous areas of risk for national security in terms of espionage and the potential disruption to critical infrastructures. China’s aggressive global campaign of cyber espionage makes it certain that it will exploit the opportunities it gains as a 5G supplier.
  • One way to envision this is to imagine that the person who built your house decides to burgle it. They know the layout, the power system, the access points, may have kept a key, and perhaps even built in a way to gain surreptitious entry. Major telecom “backbone” equipment connects to the manufacturer over a dedicated channel, reporting back on equipment status and receiving updates and software patches as needed, usually without the operator’s knowledge. Equipment could be sold and installed in perfectly secure condition, and a month later, the manufacture could send a software update to create vulnerabilities or disrupt service. The operator and its customers would have no knowledge of this change.
  • The United States can manage 5G risk using two sets of policies. The first is to ensure that American companies can continue to innovate and produce advanced technologies and face fair competition overseas. American and “like-minded” companies routinely outspend their Chinese competitors in 5G R&D and hold 10 times as many 5G patents. Chinese companies still depend on the western companies for the most advanced 5G components.
  • The second is to work with like-minded nations to develop a common approach to 5G security. The United States cannot meet the 5G challenge on its own. When the United States successfully challenged Chinese industrial policy in the past, it has been done in concert with allies.
  • Another task will be to find ways to encourage undecided countries to spend on 5G security. Huawei’s telecom networks cost between 20 to 30 percent less than competing products. Huawei also offers foreign customers generous terms for leasing or loans. It can do this because of its access to government funds. Beijing supports Huawei for both strategic and commercial reasons. Many countries will be tempted by the steep discount. Not buying Huawei means paying a “premium” for security to which economic ministries are likely to object. The United States will need to encourage others to pay this security premium while at the same time preparing for a world where the United States unavoidably connects to Huawei-supplied networks and determine how to securely connect and communicate over telecom networks in countries using Chinese network equipment.
  • The United States does not need to copy China’s government-centric model for 5G, but it does need to invest in research and adopt a comprehensive approach to combatting non-tariff barriers to trade. 5G leadership requires a broader technology competition policy in the United States that builds the engineering and tech workforce and supports both private and public R&D. The United States also needs to ensure that U.S. companies do not face obstacles from antitrust or patent infringement investigations undertaken by other countries to obtain competitive advantage.
  • In the twentieth century, steel, coal, automobiles, aircraft, ships, and the ability to produce things in mass quantity were the sources of national power. The foundations of security and power are different today. The ability to create and use new technologies is the source of economic strength and military security. Technology, and the capacity to create new technologies, are the basis of information age power. 5G as the cornerstone of a new digital environment is the focal point for the new competition, where the United States is well-positioned to lead but neither success nor security are guaranteed without action.

James Andrew Lewis is a senior vice president and director of Technology Policy Program at CSIS.

This report is made possible by general support to CSIS. No direct sponsorship contributed to this report.


1 Samsung has significant network and chip-making capabilities but still has a relatively small share of the 5G market