China leads in developing 5G networks; the United States should offer to purchase patents and blueprints to jumpstart innovation.
By Marc Grossman*
Panic is rising in the United States over China’s lead in the production and provision of global 5G networks. And a scramble is on over how to confront the technological challenge. Making a sober assessment of the threat and then creatively exploiting the unlikely offer of a new opportunity to get into the game would be useful places to start in developing a strategic response.
Of course, there is plenty to be anxious about. In its recent report Innovation and National Security, the Council on Foreign Relations says 5G networks “will offer data speeds up to fifty or one hundred times faster than current telecom networks and will serve as critical infrastructure for AI, automated vehicles, the Internet of Things, and other industrial sectors.” The Wall Street Journal reports that 5G will power “a fourth industrial revolution.” Whoever controls this technology will be in the driver’s seat for next-generation innovation.
Despite the critical importance of 5G, the United States currently has no indigenous 5G networking manufacturer. In a November joint letter to National Security Advisor Robert O’Brien, the Republican and Democratic leaders of the senate intelligence, homeland security, foreign relations and armed services committees said that, when it comes to 5G, the United States lacks a “coherent national strategy.” The senators describe the current approach as “not sufficient to rise to the challenge the country faces” and argue that falling behind in 5G poses a “strategic threat” to America’s economy and national security.
Hard questions need answers. Has America already lost the “next space race?” Who will control 5G hardware and, more importantly, 5G software? Can the US military still dominate battlefields if an adversary successfully marries 5G network capacity to artificial intelligence, not coincidentally another area where China is said to hold advantage? Are poorer nations falling even farther behind as this new network influences so much of the future?
The Trump administration has taken steps to meet the 5G challenge. In October 2018, President Donald Trump directed the US Commerce Department to develop a national strategy for allocation of spectrum for radio waves used in telecommunications. In April 2019, the Federal Communications Commission announced the largest auction of high-frequency spectrum for 5G to facilitate its commercial use along with a $20 billion fund to expand broadband in rural areas. In October, the Defense Department announced it would seek industry proposals on how to use 5G capabilities in military settings.
The Trump administration has also taken defensive measures. In May, Trump told the Commerce Department to block US companies from using telecom equipment and services from companies controlled by “adversary governments.” He also ordered the department to place Huawei, accused by the United States of acting as a tool of Chinese government espionage, on a list of companies to which US firms may not sell components without government approval. And in November, the FCC barred US cellular carriers from using federal subsidies to buy equipment from Huawei and ZTE, and the FCC launched an effort to find out where Huawei gear already exists in US networks – especially near military bases – and will consider ways to remove and replace it.
But the administration has sent mixed messages. During the June 2019 Group of Twenty summit in Japan, the president agreed to lift some of the sanctions against Huawei, leading other leaders to conclude that the sanctions were based on US economic interests rather than security risks. This undermines the larger US effort to convince other countries not to use Huawei and other Chinese telecommunications equipment in their next-generation wireless networks. Even so, there has been progress on this front. At this month’s NATO summit, leaders called on NATO and its members to ensure “the security of our communications, including 5G.” Australia, Japan and New Zealand have banned Huawei. While NATO members France, Germany and the United Kingdom won’t completely stop using Huawei’s equipment, the Washington Post reports that the European Union, Canada, Brazil and even Germany have taken recent steps to restrict Huawei’s sales.
The United States and its allies and friends must consider how to best protect their interests for the immediate future. Ironically, Huawei’s boss may have provided the answer.
In September, The Economist reported that Ren Zhengfei, CEO of Huawei, offered, for a one-time fee, to sell “perpetual access to Huawei’s existing 5G patents, licenses, codes, technical blueprints and production know how.” Ren said that the buyer could modify the source code, meaning that “neither Huawei nor the Chinese government would have even hypothetical control of any telecommunications infrastructure built using equipment produced by the acquiring entity.”
Trump should say “yes” to this offer, and then execute a three-part policy to benefit the United States economically, politically and diplomatically:
● First, the president should direct the Defense Advanced Projects Agency, or DARPA, to find how much Ren wants for the rights he has offered, and then pay what it takes to buy the whole package. The cost is an investment in America’s national security.
● Second, Trump should then order DARPA to analyze and secure the patents, licenses, codes, technical blueprints and production knowhow which the United States would then own.
●Third, once DARPA has made the 5G technology secure with the work certified by an outside group of private-sector tech industry leaders, the president should declare the entire package to be open source, available to the entire world online and free.
There are many hurdles to overcome. Can DARPA trust that Huawei has sold it the real technology? Will having DARPA’s work certified by the proposed outside group convince other nations and users that DARPA has not added their own back door? If US firms are motivated by the release to get into the production of 5G hardware, how can they secure their supply chains from counterfeiters? Even if a national effort to better compete in this arena were to start today, implementing a longer-term strategy and marshalling the resources for support could take years. Can anything be done to make 6G and the networks that will surely follow similarly available as a public good?
Despite challenges, the advantages of trying this approach are potentially enormous. Buying and securing the 5G “package” would be a cornerstone of the comprehensive national response that bipartisan senate leaders envision. It would allow the US government and American companies to enter the 5G game in a big way. Access to the technology would make it easier for US companies to dominate 5G applications and services, just, as the CFR report notes, as they have with 4G. And the US military could better plan for future conflicts.
Further, if a key American objective is to shrink Huawei’s influence and plug potential intelligence vulnerabilities, then owning and modifying Huawei’s technology beats playing a global game of “whack a mole,” which is only partially successful and aggravates allies and friends.
Finally, the United States would have been instrumental in providing developing countries with the kind of foreign assistance people most want and need: the opportunity to compete and innovate.
Former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger says that successful policies proceed from “strategic blueprints rather than reactions to discrete events.” Huawei has offered the United States the chance to catch up and perhaps even jump ahead in the fiercely competitive technology world, if the country is prepared to grab it.
Ambassador Marc Grossman is a Vice Chairman of The Cohen Group. A US Foreign Service Officer for 29 years, he retired in 2005 as Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs. The ambassador was the US Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, 2011-2012, and a Kissinger Senior Fellow at Yale in 2013. The author wishes to thank General (USAF ret) Harry Raduege and Alan Krieg for their support producing this essay.