Banning Chinese 5G equipment in the U.S. market would not be enough to thwart potential security threats, a recent federal government report warned. Instead, U.S. authorities must address China’s growing dominance in particular mobile frequencies that are set to become the global standard.
The Defense Innovation Board, a federal advisory committee to the U.S. Secretary of Defense, published a report in early April analyzing the global 5G ecosystem.
5G is the next generation of mobile networks that will offer internet connectivity at a speed that is approximately 20 times faster than 4G. The fast connection is set to revolutionize many industries, including transportation, health care, and manufacturing.
The report assessed how 5G would impact the U.S. military, explaining that it would allow the Pentagon to combine its “current fragmented networks into a single network to promote improved situational awareness and decision-making.” In other words, 5G can improve work speed and efficiency, while enabling new technologies involving weapon deployment.
Meanwhile, U.S. 5G development was insufficient in one particular regard.
Most countries have taken either of two approaches to roll out 5G. One focuses on adopting frequencies in the spectrum below 6 GHz (low to mid-band spectrum, also known as “sub-6”), while the other focuses on frequencies between 24 and 100 GHz (high-band spectrum or “mmWave”).
Each approach has its own advantage. A mmWave network can offer a higher maximum internet connection speed than sub-6, but has the drawback of having a smaller coverage area. In other words, if a mobile carrier adopts a mmWave network, it would need to build more base stations to achieve the same coverage and performance as a sub-6 network.
U.S. mobile carriers are currently focused on 5G development in the mmWave spectrum, with some looking into sub-6 spectrum options to a lesser extent, according to the report. The reason is that the U.S. government owns a chunk of the sub-6 frequencies—particularly in the 3 and 4 GHz range—for military purposes, such as satellite communications and radars.
This makes it “difficult for carriers to purchase dedicated spectrum licenses at Federal Communications Commission auctions or even to share that part of the spectrum.”
Meanwhile, other countries have been pursuing 5G development in the sub-6 spectrum, owing to advantages such as less complex infrastructure, larger coverage area, and the possibility of modifying existing 4G systems to accommodate for 5G. They also don’t face the kind of restrictions as in the United States due to military usage.
“As sub-6 becomes the global standard, it is likely that China, the current leader in that space, will lead the charge. This would create security risks for DoD [Department of Defense] operations overseas that rely on networks with Chinese components in the supply chain,” the report warned.
China has been promoting usage of its sub-6 spectrum through the One Belt, One Road (OBOR) initiative, whereby Beijing invests in infrastructure projects across southeast Asia, Europe, Africa, and Latin America for the purpose of gaining geopolitical influence.
The Chinese regime achieves this through laying down fiber optic cables for OBOR countries it partners with, granting access to certain 5G companies that would use its infrastructure—which will subsequently “shape the entire 5G product market going forward,” the report said.
Thus, any company that wants to sell their 5G products in China, or other networks with “Chinese sponsorship,” would have to build the network according to Chinese specifications or partner with Chinese companies. “This increases the risk of product backdoors and vulnerabilities throughout the supply chain,” the report warned.
To ensure that the United States does not lag behind in sub-6 development and allow Chinese standards to take the lead—and hence pose security risks—the report called on Pentagon and the FCC to “flip their prioritization from mmWave to sub-6 GHz spectrum for 5G.”
The report also suggested that the Pentagon encourage other government agencies to incentivize the industry to “adopt a common 5G network for sub-6 deployment,” such as with tax incentives and low-interest loans.