National Security and Winning the Race to 5G

National Security and Winning the Race to 5G
Charles Sykes/AP Images for T-Mobile and Sprint
National Security and Winning the Race to 5G
Charles Sykes/AP Images for T-Mobile and Sprint
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It is well past time for the country to wake up to the reality that winning the global race to 5G is more than a U.S. economic necessity; it constitutes a full-fledged national security and geostrategic imperative. Marshaling the country’s policies and resources to meet the challenge must become an urgent bipartisan national mission if America is to sustain its prosperity and international leadership.

While 4G wireless networks were evolutionary, 5G is revolutionary. Offering up to 100 times faster speeds and one-tenth the latency (delay) of its predecessor - 5G will become the common operating backbone for technologies that will fundamentally change the way we live, work, play, and defend the nation. 

A 2018 CTIA study estimated that nationwide 5G would create three million new jobs and grow the U.S. economy by $500 billion by 2024.  Alone, such economic impact qualifies 5G as a bonafide national security initiative. A robust, innovative economy is essential for supporting strong national defense and the capability to effectively project power in a dangerous and uncertain world.

After trailing Europe in 3G, the U.S. led the world in deployment of 4G and became the world’s epicenter of innovative mobile applications.  This has paid dividends that we continue to experience in economic growth and job creation.  5G can provide a new and even more powerful economic boost - if the U.S. once again leads the world.

However, U.S. economic competitiveness is just the beginning of the story. 5G will bring essential new capacities to our military services and the Department of Defense, enabling the nation to maintain its technological edge against potential adversaries – an edge essential for helping prevail in conflict and for maintaining peace.  As noted by a group of prominent former senior military officials in an open letter, “5G has the ability to enhance DoD decision-making and strategic capabilities from the enterprise network to the tactical edge of the battlefield.”  

Moreover, the global race to 5G is a future-defining geostrategic contest, and it’s well underway. Leadership confers not only the pole position on innovation but the ability to set the international norms and standards that will determine what the global future looks like.  China knows that this is a Sputnik moment and is refining its strategy and accelerating its investments to seize it.  

According to the latest report from Forrester Research, China is best positioned to win the emerging global race to roll out 5G mobile infrastructure.  A recent Deloitte study shows that China is outpacing the U.S.’ wireless infrastructure spend by $8-10 billion since 2015. The net effect was summed up by the Defense Innovation Board, “China is on a track to repeat in 5G what happened with the United States in 4G.” 

At stake is whether the world will adopt the Chinese model that harnesses 5G as a tool for espionage, economic pilferage, coercion, and authoritarian rule; or the U.S. and western model of using 5G as a platform for prosperity, human development and privacy protection. It’s well known, but not sufficiently appreciated, that global market penetration of made-in-China 5G equipment is part of the country’s Belt and Road Initiative. At the same time, Chinese law obligates the country’s makers of this equipment to cooperate with national intelligence efforts.

Given the enormous stakes, the White House established a special spectrum strategy task force.  5G reports are being developed by a host of Defense Department advisory boards.  The FCC is moving to reduce obstacles to 5G infrastructure deployment. These are positive steps, but in a time-critical race, panels, studies and bureaucracy cannot supplant expeditious action.

What’s clear is that winning the race to secure 5G is a function of several key lines of effort.

One, is making 5G network deployment a national public-private sector objective.  With early deployments, the carriers are fighting to be first to deploy 5G. That’s good, but these efforts lack sufficient resources and momentum.  Unleashing competition is the key to America’s unmatched economic prowess. The U.S. government and the public need to keep the competitive heat on the industry to achieve the swiftest possible nationwide buildout.

To that end, the proposed T-Mobile and Sprint merger has helped galvanize national attention on 5G and intensified the competition.  Indeed, the merger is predicated on the parties' commitment to rapidly build out a nationwide 5G network. Although T-Mobile and Sprint each have standalone plans to deploy 5G, as pointed out in recent Congressional hearings the combined company would have unique assets required to get it done while supercharging U.S. competition to win the race.  This is an opportunity we dare not pass up.

Two, is fostering a trusted supply chain. Legislation prohibits Huawei and ZTE components in networks used by the Department of Defense.  As top former military and intelligence thought leaders called for in an open letter, the ban should expand to all government and commercial networks. 

We are headed in the right direction. During Congressional hearings, T-Mobile’s CEO testified that Chinese vendors would be barred from the new company's network.  Other key industry players have made similar pledges.  Now it’s the public sector’s turn. Government must set clear definitions and standards for what constitutes trusted vendors and trusted supply chain for the industry at large, consistent with the National Security Agreement accompanying the proposed merger which CFIUS and the Team Telecom agencies recently approved. Public-private partnership of this kind can ensure that the nation’s transition isn’t just to 5G; but to secure 5G that protects critical infrastructure, national-security related operations, and privacy.

Finally, American leadership must prioritize marshaling our friends around the world particularly our NATO allies to follow suit on secure 5G, to assure the secure interoperability of our platforms.  Moreover, we have a shared interest in ensuring that China’s state-owned entities are unable to continue growing their market share, seeding the world with state-subsidized 5G equipment as a tool for espionage, theft, and coercion, while economically strangling competitors.   

This is no time for complacency or gridlock. Time is of the essence.  It will be a 5G world.  Our global competitors understand the stakes and are doing everything in their power to establish 5G preeminence.  We can seize the 5G opportunity by harnessing the free market competition to win – the same formula that made the U.S. a leader in 4G. Winning the competition will ensure a prosperous 5G future that advances America’s principles, values, and interests for decades to come. 


Michael Chertoff is the executive chairman and co-founder of the Chertoff Group. He was the U.S. secretary of Homeland Security from 2005 to 2009 under President George W. Bush. 

Keith B. Alexander, General USA (Ret.), former director of the National Security Agency, chief of the Central Security Service and commander of the United States Cyber Command. 

Timothy J. Keating, Admiral USN (Ret.), former Commander, U. S. Pacific Command and Commander, U. S. Northern Command/NORAD.



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