5G in five (not so) easy pieces

5G network wireless systems and internet of things with man touching Abstract global with wireless communication network on space background .
Editor's note:

Tom Wheeler served as the 31st chairman of the Federal Communications Commission from 2013 to 2017. This paper is adapted from a presentation made at the request of the Government Accountability Office.

Throughout the world, ink is being spilled and electrons exercised in a frenetic focus on fifth generation wireless technology, or 5G. The 5G discussion, with all its permutations and combinations, has grown to resemble an elementary school soccer game where everyone chases the ball, first in one direction, then another.

In classic network engineering terms, the “noise” surrounding 5G is interfering with the “signal” about just what 5G is and what is necessary for its introduction. Consideration of 5G is far more serious than the so-called 5G “race” concocted by those seeking to advantage themselves in the business or political market—especially the political market.

There are five often misunderstood facts to know about 5G:

  • 5G is revolutionary because it replaces the hardware components of the network with software that “virtualizes” the network by using the common language of Internet Protocol (IP).
  • 5G is evolutionary as both its new radios and the core network functions are defined as a progression from 4G. Like 4G before it, in most markets 5G will roll out in steps.
  • 5G is not transformational, per se. What will be transformative are the applications that will use the network. The United States was not the first to deploy any of the “G’s” of wireless networks, but nonetheless dominates the wireless ecosystem because of the innovative technologies developed by American entrepreneurs for those networks.
  • 5G is a cybersecurity risk because the network is software based. Earlier networks’ reliance on centralized hardware-based functions offered a security-enhancing choke point. Distributed software-based systems, per se, are more vulnerable.
  • 5G is spectrum dependent. In the long run this means new spectrum allocations. While those are underway, however, the evolution has begun using old spectrum assignments.

“Winning 5G” is not so much a “race” as it is a process. Characterizing 5G as a contest demeans its great technological progress and the policy challenges that progress presents. 5G should be more than a political talking point; the new network represents the need for a meaningful policy strategy.

What is missing in today’s 5G policy discussion is a focused identification of deliverables that go deeper and are more meaningful than the ill-defined “winning” of a so-called “5G race.” To consider this, let’s parse 5G into five (not so) easy pieces:

  • What will it do?
  • What is the technology and what about spectrum?
  • What about cybersecurity?
  • What are the hidden issues?
  • Does first to the tape really matter?

What will 5G do?

To listen to its proponents, 5G is on par with the genius of Edison. For equipment manufacturers it is a new revenue stream at a time when the 4G market was becoming saturated. For wireless carriers, it similarly offers a vision of high margin network-based applications in place of today’s commoditized carriage of other companies’ data. And for political actors, 5G is the perfect excitement vehicle: something new and better, the promise of which could be theoretically lost without the actor’s decisive leadership.

Perhaps, however, we should listen to Bill Stone, Verizon’s vice president of technology development and planning. Wisely, Stone recently warned, “There is a potential to overhype and under-deliver on the 5G promise.”

There is no question as to the importance of 5G. It is the most significant network overhaul in history because the alchemy of digital technology allows the transformation of what was always done in hardware to become functions accomplished in software. Then, with such a virtualized network, the power of the lingua franca of Internet Protocol (IP) takes over to eliminate the need for specific technology protocols for specific functions.

Yet, while 5G holds great promises, the wisdom of Stone’s admonition should be our North Star. It is time to take a deep breath and realize that 5G is something more than marketing slogans or technology to be weaponized for political purposes.

“It is time to take a deep breath and realize that 5G is something more than marketing slogans or technology to be weaponized for political purposes.”

As a part of the lead up to the 2016 allocation of the world’s first 5G-dedicated spectrum, I told the National Press Club, “If anyone tells you they know the details of what 5G will deliver, walk the other way.” Insofar as all the potential new services 5G could enable, it is an admonition that still stands three years later. 5G will be both evolutionary and revolutionary. At first, consumers will notice only incremental improvements as 5G is used principally for capacity expansion. Over time, however, an all Internet Protocol (IP) based network will open new possibilities.

5G is a vast framework for the networked application of spectrum. When the functions of the network are virtualized in software, the nature of the network is transformed from its traditional role of transporting information between points, to abstracting and orchestrating digital information within an all-digital network. Because it is a software-driven network, 5G may be the last physical network overhaul in generations as upgrades will now be only a matter of replacing software and low-cost, commodity components.

The details of the new applications that will use the network are still in the imagination stage. How they will function, however, is not. The ubiquitous Internet Protocol will be the language of both the network architecture and the applications that run on it. Thanks to IP, 5G will be able to run multiple concurrent application layers—each tied together by IP—as opposed to legacy telecom networks that could only perform tasks sequentially. This capability ignites innovation potential while exposing 5G to the vast array of resources inherent to cloud computing.

Just what collapsing everything to IP (as opposed to the tradition of unique protocols for unique applications) means in terms of applications is up for grabs. It is revealing, for instance, that Verizon is running a crowdsourced “Build on 5G Challenge” contest in which they solicit ideas for 5G products, services, or applications. Answering this question will be crucial to how and at what speed 5G is deployed. As one trade publication put it, “operators are looking for the ‘killer’ 5G app because the cost of rolling out 5G networks is expensive, and the costs won’t be recouped by simply increasing prices for mobile connections.”

While innovators explore the promise of an all-IP world, early mass market applications of 5G will probably be more pedestrian. One industry analyst suggested that, like other internet experiences, the high-speed, low latency realism of 5G might make pornography an early moneymaking application. Another analyst suggested that real time gambling during sporting events will take advantage of 5G’s high-speed, low latency connections. In other words, if previous internet history holds, when consumers slip on 5G-enabled AR and VR headsets, it may not just be for a tour of Tutankhamun’s tomb.

AT&T’s first 5G customers have been businesses that used it as a replacement for their wired local area network (LAN). Verizon’s first 5G customers are what one might call “wireless cable”—a service that delivers high-speed broadband capacity to homes in competition with the local cable company. The ability to handle a multitude of Internet of Things (IoT) connected devices has also been promoted as a 5G deliverable. While most IoT applications don’t require high bandwidth, even at slow data rates, thousands of IoT devices communicating at the same time will require 5G capabilities.

While the all-IP network enables Buck Rogers-like potential, at this point there is one driving force behind 5G: the application of the new technology to expand network capacity.

Thanks in large part to the ever-growing demands for wirelessly delivered video, U.S. carriers are forecast to run out of available 4G spectrum as we approach 2022. Today, for instance, about three-quarters of mobile network data is used for video traffic. Disney, for instance, reports that over 70% of its content is today accessed via a mobile device (up from 40% four years ago).

The Cisco Visual Networking Index forecasts a greater than threefold jump in global mobile video traffic from 2019 to 2022. Buck Rogers will come, but first 5G will be more of the same. As the industry analysts at New Street Research put it, “the primary role of 5G will be to enable operators to continue to add capacity at acceptable costs.”

And it is great capacity: fast, and with low latency (the time elapsed waiting for a response). The obvious use of 5G is to provide capacity to fill the spectrum demands for what we know now: video. There is nothing to be ashamed of here. A study by 5G manufacturer Ericsson found that 5G adoption would come in three phases. The first phase would be premium smartphone downloads of content (usually this is video content) in seconds rather than minutes. This would be followed by 5G home wireless broadband to challenge traditional cable TV (video and broadband delivered video). The final phase Ericsson predicts, is 5G hot zones of ultra-high speed in airports, offices and shopping areas.

While 5G will drive mobile video services, any consideration of what 5G will be must take notice of the immutable lesson of network history: that it is not the primary network that is transformative, but its secondary effects. “If we’ve learned anything in the generational march through wireless connectivity,” the 2016 Press Club remarks reminded us, “it is that we have always underestimated the innovation that would result from new generations of wireless networks.” 3G networks, for instance, were built on an economic model that did not anticipate how the iPhone would change the nature of those networks. The technology of 5G networks far exceeds the technological upgrade from 2G to 3G—yet, looking at what that earlier upgrade unexpectedly enabled, we cannot underestimate what’s next. The immutable law of network history will again repeat itself as the 5G network spawns transformational secondary effects.

What is 5G technology and 5G spectrum?

The technical standards for 5G remain a work in progress. The international standards-setting group 3GPP operates by periodic “Releases” that roughly coincide with network generations. Release 15 includes many key functionalities, which some would consider low-hanging fruit. However, Release 15 has been pushed back by three months into the third quarter of 2019; final release will come mid-2020. The first iterations of Release 16, which will contain key standards necessary for IoT, will not be available until 2020 with the final standard some significant time after. Even after a standard is released, it takes years for it to be widely implemented.

5G is the combination of innovative radio and core network technologies. Everything is now reduced to data, and since IP is the single language of 5G, everything simply becomes an IP app. There are three unique but interrelated factors at the heart of the 5G standard: greater spectral efficiency, greater spectrum pathways, and the distribution outward of core network functions.

Greater spectral efficiency

The greater the spectral efficiency—measured in bits per hertz—the greater a cell site’s capacity. A 5G network puts more bits through a given amount of spectrum by: (1) Optimizing the signal-controlling overhead, (2) Thereby making more of the spectrum available for traffic, (3) Mitigating degrading radio interference, and (4) The use of multiple-input/multiple-output (MIMO) antennas that break a transmission into multiple streams across a common channel. By one estimate, using these technologies expands the spectral efficiency of mid-band 5G by 52% over 4G.

Greater spectrum pathways

While spectral efficiency gets more throughput for each hertz of spectrum, the more hertz that can be used, the greater the total throughput. This is accomplished by aggregating existing spectrum assignments and/or by the allocation of new greenfield spectrum. The first is a function of carrier spectrum management, the second a matter of government spectrum management.

Existing mobile spectrum assignments are typically 10 to 20 MHz blocks. The larger the amount of spectrum available, the more data that can be driven through it. Thus, a concept that has been the backbone of wireless technology since the earliest days of cellular has been combined with the basic concepts of a distributed packet network to introduce “carrier aggregation” that virtualizes a broader pathway. One channel of spectrum is used to control the other channel(s) that deliver the content; then the information is broken into pieces to be sent over multiple different pathways and reassembled at the destination. In 4G-LTE—the first evolutionary step toward 5G (LTE standing for Long Term Evolution)—carrier aggregation can bond up to five 20 MHz channels into a virtually expanded pathway. By thus decoupling the control of the network from the carriage of data, 5G makes each independently scalable to further increase throughput.

There is, of course, management overhead in carrier aggregation. The optimal solution is to remove that overhead by making available large swaths of spectrum that can carry large amounts of data. Using greenfield spectrum for 5G, up to five 100 MHz channels can be aggregated for speeds up to 20-times faster. This is what makes the millimeter wave high-band spectrum above 6 GHz attractive: the availability of hundreds of MHz in one place.

Unfortunately, however, all spectrum is not created equal. No one has repealed the laws of physics. The higher you go in frequency, the more oxygen eats at the signal to reduce the distance it can travel, and the more that obstacles such as walls, trees, or people can block the signal. While 5G networks are being built in low-band (below 2 GHz), mid-band (2-6 GHz), and high-band (above 6 GHz), the distance the signal can travel moves from miles to meters as you progress up the frequencies. As a result, the higher the frequency, the smaller the cell radius, the more cells required to cover an area, the more infrastructure required to support the cells, and the greater the cost of the network.

“While it is not quite that simple, high-band spectrum will play a part in a 5G future—but it is only a part.”

Spectrum policy decisions for 5G represent a trade-off between the physics of the frequencies and the ability to have broad channels capable of carrying large amounts of data. Such broad channels are more readily available in the high spectrum bands. 5G spectrum allocations have thus far focused on these so-called millimeter wave bands. The difficulty with this decision, one anonymous White House official told The Washington Post after President Donald Trump held a White House event to tout an upcoming high-band spectrum auction at the FCC, is that “We are winning a race that no one else is running to build a 5G ecosystem that no one will use.” While it is not quite that simple, high-band spectrum will play a part in a 5G future—but it is only a part.

Low-band spectrum has long been the mainstay of wireless service (and was made even more plentiful by the Obama FCC’s transfer of such spectrum from use by local broadcasters to wireless use). Such low-band spectrum has been assigned to networks in smaller size blocks than high band’s assignment. Therefore, even with aggregation, the total spectrum available to carry the data—and thus the data throughput—is less than high-band.

Mid-band spectrum is “Goldilocks spectrum”—the potential for larger blocks that are not too small for higher throughput, while not too high to impose serious propagation constraints. As a result, mid-band spectrum has increasingly become a focus of policy planners.

However, the potential use of mid-band for 5G runs head long into the other controlling factor in spectrum utilization: the most attractive spectrum has long been allocated for other purposes. These spectrum allocations were made in the analog era, based on the behavior of radio waves. However, the characteristics of digital signals allow more efficient spectrum usage, including spectrum sharing. Your home WiFi, for instance, does not interfere with your neighbor’s because WiFi is a “listen before talk” technology in which packets of data can be inserted into milliseconds of unused capacity.

The “listen before talk” capability of digital technology formed the backbone of the Obama FCC’s “Citizens Broadband Radio Spectrum” (CBRS) allocation. This Goldilocks-zone spectrum between 3.55 and 3.7 MHz is a wide swath, but is being used by the Defense Department, principally the Navy. Using digital signal sensing capabilities, however, it is possible to share the spectrum. A tiering of use priorities was negotiated with the Navy getting priority and commercial users able to plug their packets in when not in use (similar to WiFi, this non-usage is often measured in milliseconds).

Just as no one has repealed the laws of physics, however, so are the laws of human nature in full force. Having received a spectrum assignment, most licensees are loath to relinquish what they consider their God-given spectrum rights to digital performance assumptions like spectrum sharing. As then-Assistant Secretary of Commerce for Technology and Information David Redl told a satellite industry conference: “In this era of competition for spectrum resources, it can be easy to think that we’re in a winner-take-all battle, but that mindset asks us to make false choices that will shortchange America.”

Redl’s remarks were predicated on the on-going reassessment of how to make the so-called C-band spectrum at 3.7 to 4.2 GHz, now licensed for satellite services, available for 5G. Because of this mid-band spectrum’s propagation pattern and the potential for sharing with current users, the C-band holds part of the solution to providing sufficient mid-band spectrum for U.S. 5G networks.

The wireless industry association, CTIA, reports that on average, other countries are making four times as much licensed mid-band spectrum available than the United States. China reportedly plans seven times more mid-band spectrum than in the U.S. In his remarks, Redl addressed the spectrum sharing possibilities in C-band, observing that spectrum policy doesn’t “have to choose between terrestrial 5G and satellite services … These uses are not mutually exclusive; it’s just going to take hard work for them to continue to coexist in a more contentious spectrum environment.”

Network costs are also affected by spectrum choices. As the rest of the world settles in on the mid-band spectrum below 6 GHz for their 5G operations, one can expect there to be scope and scale economies in the production and pricing of mid-band infrastructure and handsets.

Distribution of core network functions

Thus far, the discussion has focused on the spectrum-based radio access component of 5G. The third factor that makes 5G possible is a reimagining of the core network to which the radio access network (RAN) delivers the signal. While earlier wireless generations had dedicated hardware at their core to route the signals and perform other network functions, 5G has moved those functions into software and put them in the cloud. As the core network functions move to the edge of the network, and as the RAN is reconfigured, the result is lower latency through a shorter path to the required functionality. The virtualization of core network functions are also where the “it’s all IP” opportunities exist to increase network functionality and reduce costs through software virtualization.

Big Bang vs. evolution?

Often, 5G is portrayed as a binary choice: to completely overhaul the network with a onetime Big Bang replacement strategy, or else “lose” its benefits. Unless there are market-superseding government policies to prop up a new standalone network such as may be happening in China, the new network will most likely roll out the same way as 4G; that is to say, incrementally.

Such an evolutionary rollout is prudent for private capital given the absence of proven new sources of revenue to justify the high cost of an all-at-once rebuild. Adding 5G functionality to 4G infrastructure improves the network experience by embracing the capabilities of the new technology but does so in a fiscally responsible manner.

Such a bespoke reality applies to spectrum as well. Different pieces of spectrum will also be used for different applications. AT&T, for instance, is using low band spectrum in less dense “coverage” areas and high band in more dense “capacity” areas. Verizon is taking advantage of how the carrier aggregation capabilities of 5G allow one channel to act as the control channel for data sent over other pieces of spectrum. In the Verizon model, for instance, licensed spectrum is combined with unlicensed CBRS and millimeter spectrum for a 5G experience.

The 5G roadmap is full of options to progress from non-standalone 5G built on an evolution from 4G to ultimately a standalone 5G network. In free market economies, 5G will be a moving picture of evolutionary development rather than a Big Bang.

What about cybersecurity?

Networks have always been attack vectors. Whether animal paths used by indigenous war parties, or the roads used by Caesar’s legions, networks were the pathway to attack adversaries. So why are we surprised to discover that 5G could be a pathway of attack?

In November 2018, Trump’s National Security Telecommunications Advisory Committee (NSTAC) told him, “the cybersecurity threat now poses an existential threat to the future of the Nation.” Three sub-issues attach to address that threat in regard to 5G:

  • Why has our government failed to be proactive on 5G cybersecurity?
  • Is Huawei the totality of the cyber issue?
  • What about the broader supply chain of 5G components and equipment?

The Trump administration cancelled attempts to oversee cybersecurity as an integral part of the 5G standard and rejected a National Security Council (NSC) alert about 5G cybersecurity. Shortly after taking office, the Trump FCC allowed to atrophy an Obama FCC initiative that the 5G technical standard must be designed from the outset with cyber protections. For the first time in history, cybersecurity would be overseen as a network design forethought, rather than an afterthought. The Trump FCC also cancelled a formal inquiry seeking input from our country’s best technical minds about how to provide this 5G security. Beyond these crippling steps, the Trump FCC retracted a white paper about reducing cyberthreats, and even questioned whether the agency had any responsibility for the oversight of network cybersecurity.

While cybersecurity is a topic in the ongoing standard setting process, it is a process in which the equipment manufacturers (including the Chinese) make the decisions. The Trump FCC eliminated the ability for the U.S. government to use the standards process to define what would be acceptable cybersecurity for 5G systems operating in the United States.

Then, in early 2018 a White House National Security Council Report warned about the 5G cyber threat. The administration’s response was to fire the report’s author—an Air Force general who had previously served as defense attaché in Beijing—and deep six the report because the analyst had the temerity to include among proposed solutions a federally-owned backbone network to enhance cybersecurity.

Because of the Trump administration’s lack of initiative, Congress has stepped in. The bipartisan leadership of the House Energy and Commerce Committee wrote the FCC Chairman in May that 5G cybersecurity “deserves a more explicit focus and attention” from the agency. Negotiations are also apparently underway to include in the National Defense Authorization Act a mandate that the Trump administration develop a 5G cybersecurity strategy.

The Trump administration’s focus on Huawei equipment is not a cybersecurity strategy, and by melding trade policy with cybersecurity, damages each. Trump told reporters on May 23, “Huawei is something that is very dangerous.” He then went on to add, “It’s possible that Huawei could be included in some kind of a trade deal.” Not only does this confuse cybersecurity and trade, but it also interprets cybersecurity strategy as being centered around Huawei, to the detriment of the kind of comprehensive 5G strategy that is required.

“The Trump administration’s focus on Huawei equipment is not a cybersecurity strategy, and by melding trade policy with cybersecurity, damages each.”

The national champion Chinese company is definitely a powerhouse in the world’s telecommunications infrastructure. It appears the Trump administration has a two-pronged approach to Huawei: keep the company out of U.S. networks, and attack its ability to provide equipment anywhere by denying it access to essential American technology.

Keeping Huawei out of U.S. networks continues a policy established when the Obama administration successfully encouraged major telecommunications companies not to use Huawei equipment. The Trump initiative continues that policy, expanded by an announced FCC shutdown of subsidy support for small rural carriers that had ignored the warnings about Huawei.

The use of Huawei equipment in domestic networks has many facets. One concern is the ability to introduce network vulnerabilities through ongoing software updates. The other is the concern expressed by some that a 2017 Chinese law requiring all citizens and companies to cooperate with the nation’s intelligence agencies applies to activities beyond China’s borders.

“Our interconnected world makes it easy to implant malicious code, so why worry about Huawei?” some people ask. We all know stories, for instance, of using the internet to install malware that affects the operation of, for instance, a hospital’s IT system. The cybercriminal discovers a vulnerability in the hospital’s software and implants its own code to exploit that weakness. Consider, however, the difference between that kind of attack on an activity that is peripheral to the network itself and implanting harmful code in the network and thus garnering the ability to see and affect all the traffic the network handles. Then consider how the cybercriminals had to discover the hospital’s vulnerabilities, compared to the up-front knowledge about the software backdoors in a network because you put them there.

The U.K. government has tried to find a middle ground solution by screening all Huawei software and keeping the company out of the core network. As discussed earlier, however, the 5G core network is virtualized in software and moved to the edge of the network. While it might be possible to build a network monitoring system to identify abnormalities, such a solution would require a measure of good faith cooperation that does not exist today.

The British government’s efforts to monitor Huawei’s software were recently disrupted by the nature of the software itself. In a March 2019 report, the U.K.’s Huawei Cyber Security Evaluation Centre Oversight Board identified “significant technical issues” that lead to cyber risks when using Huawei equipment. Their discovery: Huawei’s software coding was so sloppy as to be an invitation to hacking. “What kind of sector incentivizes a market where the leader in that market—in terms of market volume—has the security we published in the Oversight report in March?” the technical director of the UK National Cyber Security Centre warned in May.

 Beyond keeping Huawei out of domestic networks, the Trump administration has an on-again, off-again strategy to keep the company out of the 5G networks of other countries by denying Huawei access to U.S. products necessary to its operation. The consequences of an antagonistic foreign policy came home to roost when our strategic allies ignored U.S. cautions about including Huawei equipment in their 5G deployments. The administration’s decision to place Huawei on the Commerce Department’s Entity List of businesses deemed to be acting contrary to U.S. national security interests seemed designed to achieve what couldn’t be achieved diplomatically through the technological crippling of Huawei. American companies may not do business with companies on the Entity List. As a result, microchips from Qualcomm and the Android operating system from Google, among other products, may not be exported to Huawei or its related companies.

At his G-20 meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping, President Trump apparently walked back his Entity List prohibitions in an effort to restart trade talks. Whether this is cybersecurity or a trade war can be debated. Whichever it is (or both), the two issues have become joined. It is important, however, not to let these high-profile activities distract from the fact that banning or crippling Huawei, will not by itself secure the 5G networks. We must be alert to the tweet or headline proclaiming a hollow Huawei-based “cyber-victory.”

Leadership is necessary to create a western alternative to Huawei. In April, Trump proclaimed of 5G, “It’s a race our great companies are now involved in.” But there are no American companies that are manufacturing 5G infrastructure or phones. Motorola, which once dominated the world’s telecom equipment market, is gone, its infrastructure business now part of Nokia. Lucent, the successor to the great Western Electric of the Bell System days, was absorbed into the French company Alcatel which then promptly disappeared into Nokia as well. The principal 5G infrastructure companies, other than Huawei, are now Finland’s Nokia, Sweden’s Ericsson, and South Korea’s Samsung.

“Mr. Trump has been deeply involved, quietly meeting with American telecommunications executives at the White House…only to be told that no American firms make the core switches that will direct 5G internet traffic,” The New York Times reported. Because there is no U.S. flagged infrastructure or device manufacturer, and because of the obvious concerns about Huawei, one wonders why the administration does not lead a western coalition to support suppliers such as Nokia, Ericsson and Samsung?

The development of 2G technology was a Europe-wide policy decision that carried on to affect 3G and 4G. In the face of Chinese government subsidization of a worldwide onslaught by Huawei, however, the United States and its allies seem incapable of a response. It is reported, for instance, that Chinese government-granted advantages were key to Huawei’s recent selection to supply the 5G network for KPN, the Netherlands’ leading carrier. Huawei reportedly underbid KPN’s 4G supplier Ericsson by 60%, in large part because of the state-supported benefits it receives.

Capitalism’s push to reduce costs in order to maximize profits has been exploited by the Chinese state and the companies it supports. It is reported that Huawei “gets hundreds of millions of dollars in annual subsidies and, together with another Chinese firm, is guaranteed a majority share of the domestic market, the world’s largest.” This support includes “loans at below-market interest rates, drawing on a staggering $100 billion line of credit at state-owned banks.” The consequence is that the company  has used advantageous pricing to buy its way into the backbone networks of democratic capitalism.

“5G is not just about Huawei. The security of 5G is an ecosystem that must be protected in its whole.”

5G is not just about Huawei. The security of 5G is an ecosystem that must be protected in its whole. The supply chain that makes up 5G runs the gamut from radio networks, to the integrated chipsets in that network, and the devices that will use the network (not just phones, but also billions of IoT devices). Each of these devices then have their own component parts supply chain that introduces risk. And, of course, the services that ride the new network are themselves vulnerable.

Recently, the Defense Innovation Board published a report, “The 5G Ecosystem: Risks & Opportunities for DoD.” Among the report’s observations was how, as DoD moves from bespoke technology to less costly commercial off-the-shelf (COTS) equipment, “DoD is facing a future 5G environment where its supply chain will be increasingly vulnerable or compromised.” Because of inadvertent or malicious security vulnerabilities throughout the supply chain, there are numerous cyber weaknesses in the 5G ecosystem.

The 5G supply chain cannot be relegated to a policy backwater. In the closing days of the Obama FCC, the agency published “Cybersecurity Risk Reduction,” a paper that addressed a panoply of network-level cyber threats, including from the supply chain. The analysis observed,

“As private actors, ISPs [Internet Service Providers such as 5G networks] operate in economic environments that pressure against investments that do not contribute to profit. Protective action taken by one ISP can be undermined by the failure of other ISPs to take similar actions. This weakens the incentive of all ISPs to invest in such protections. Cyber- accountability therefore requires a combination of market-based incentives and appropriate regulatory oversight where the market does not, or cannot, do the job efficiently.”

Specifically addressing supply chain risks, the Obama FCC’s paper reported on a FCC partnership with the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) and the National Counterintelligence and Security Center (NCSC) to recommend, “The Commission should consider continuing efforts to reduce supply chain risk and the risk from insider threats.” Upon taking office, the Trump FCC retracted the paper. There appear to have been no “continuing efforts” by the agency on supply chain cyber threats since removing that report.

The whiz-bang visions of new technologies growing out of 5G will be seriously impacted if the network—in all its components—cannot be counted on to be secure. 5G proponents make the case for new applications such as “smart cities” where everything from traffic lights to the water supply are orchestrated by 5G. Few mayors, however, will be willing to connect their city if the network or the intelligent devices attached to the network to provide essential services can be compromised because the 5G ecosystem is not sufficiently secure. Bloomberg has reported that this risk extends to the ability to finance government bonds because of a “growing credit risk that cyberattacks pose to states and cities.”

The “risk of inadvertent or malicious security vulnerabilities,” in the words of the Defense Innovation Board, was highlighted by the chief security officer of Canada’s leading wireless provider at an industry conference. Current cyber practices, “don’t really get the job done for … the new level of confidence … that we’re going to be required to produce in order to gain the public’s trust,” Telus’s Carey Frey warned.

The United Kingdom’s National Cyber Security Centre technical director, Dr. Dan Levy, was even more direct, “Security is fundamentally broken in the telecoms sector. There’s no incentive to do security in a broken market,” because “security doesn’t get prioritized.” Failure to prioritize cybersecurity in the 5G ecosystem will retard U.S. investments in smart cities and other IoT technologies. If there is a “race” with China, the failure to develop secure solutions will cede the advantage to such an authoritarian government with its other mechanisms for addressing security. A meaningful 5G cybersecurity program would include a comprehensive, government-led program to assure that 5G security is prioritized across the broad scope of its exposures.

What are the hidden issues?

Just as 5G cyber is far more than the current attention on Huawei, the actual construction of 5G networks is far more than the current attention on spectrum. Yes, it is all about capacity, but other less obvious issues will determine that spectrum’s use.

Antenna siting 

There is an inherent tension between the right of localities to make zoning decisions and the impact of those rights on a national infrastructure like 5G. There has always been a stress between wireless network infrastructure and not-in-my-back-yard (NIMBY) concerns.

The Trump FCC’s solution has been to adopt rules that largely preempt the rights of localities to oversee the construction of 5G antennas in their communities. Because of the density required for 5G cells, these antennas will be much more prevalent than those used in earlier generations of wireless. The good news is they will also be shoebox-sized as opposed to the oil derrick-like antennas of early wireless.

“We cannot let today’s red tape strangle the 5G future,” the Chairman of the FCC said as the agency preempted the rights of localities. As industry analyst and Brookings Non-Resident Fellow Blair Levin has pointed out, however, it was a giveaway without offsetting expectations for wireless companies. “This effectively transfers $2 billion [in rights of way fees] from cities [and their taxpayers] to carriers.” Levin observed, “In return, the FCC asks carriers for nothing” in terms of deployment commitments.

The issue of antenna siting has been further complicated as some states have sued to overturn the FCC’s order. While states like Texas and Florida have passed legislation embracing the concepts, 25 others, including California and New York, have rejected the idea. The impasse has prompted two U.S. senators, John Thune (R-S.D.) and Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii) to introduce federal legislation establishing standards for public review of antenna siting. It is an issue that must be resolved, but in order to be resolved must rise above winner-take-all outcomes.

Health effects

For a couple of decades there have been lawsuits alleging adverse health effects from mobile phone exposure. They have been rejected by the courts under the so-called “junk science” standard. Now, the Russian disinformation campaign has embraced this as a means of further sowing dissent in our nation.

According to The New York Times, RT America—the Kremlin’s principal propaganda outlet in this country—has been describing 5G as, “A Dangerous Experiment on Humanity” and warning of adverse health consequences. In the U.S. radiation safety is overseen by the Food and Drug Administration whose scientific analysis concludes, “The majority of studies published have failed to show an association between exposure to radiofrequency from a cellphone and health problems.” RT America, however, has been alarming its viewers with warnings “it might kill you.”

Backhaul and fronthaul

While 5G can solve the capacity problems in the wireless link to the user, there remains a challenge with the capacity to connect the cell site to the greater network. The dense network of cell sites needs to be interconnected. The industry term for this is “backhaul,” the transportation of traffic back and forth between the cell tower and the internet. Simply put, the 5G radio access and core network may be lightning fast, but if there isn’t an equally fast connection to the internet, the 5G experience will be reduced to the characteristics of the weakest link.

A 5G operator’s access to sufficient quantities of high-speed backhaul capacity is critical to the deployment of 5G. Optimally, this backhaul comes over optical fiber cables. Not all 5G providers, however, have their own fiber plant in every market, or in the density that is necessary. Therefore, the 5G providers must lease capacity from either a competitor or a cable television company. The Obama FCC tried to require cable companies to open access to their lines for backhaul, and for all fiber owners to charge a reasonable rate. It was very specifically a 5G-enabling action; unfortunately, it was defeated by the industry. The same issue remains unresolved today: 5G requires access to third party backhaul capacity at just and reasonable rates.

Open networks

There is another openness-related 5G issue. Will the network itself be open, or will the network owners be the sole determination of who gets on, with what services, and at what prices? This is the heart of the Obama FCC’s Open Internet Rule that was subsequently repealed by the Trump FCC (a decision presently under judicial review).

This is especially important as 5G technology allows what is called “network slicing”—the virtual segmentation of the network for specific applications.

The fog around 5G has obscured consideration of the public interest effect when a network virtualizes itself into multiple pseudo-networks. The ability of a network operator to “segment a network to meet specific requirements around, for example, quality of service or speed, was identified as a key weapon in an operator’s [5G] armoury,” a trade report concluded. The ability of a network operator to “slice” its pathway into parts that can each become an independent monopoly bottleneck only expands the competitive threats of an un-open internet. While the Open Internet Rule made exceptions for network operators to provide “specialized services” using different criteria, absent a basic openness requirement, 5G could end up being the first American telecommunications network since the Pacific Telegraph Act of 1860 without non-discriminatory access.

5G is expensive

A study by McKinsey & Company said about the cost of building a 5G network, “The numbers look more daunting than previously expected. … Network investments would have to increase by up to 60% with a significant increase in operating expenses.”

McKinsey’s recommendation is network sharing. It is not a new idea: In the early days of cellular, companies would band together to jointly construct a network and share its costs and capacity. Consumers who bought a particular service had no notion it was running on the same network as a competitor brand, but the companies saved money by not building redundant networks and were thus able to reach more customers.

This idea has been catching on in other parts of the world. Multiple European operators are sharing, or proposing sharing 5G infrastructure. McKinsey reports, “Operators have been able to reduce the total cost of ownership by up to 30% while improving network quality.” When it comes to construction, the savings can be even greater. “The cost of small cell deployment can be reduced by up to 50% if three players share the same network,” McKinsey reports.

Let’s be clear, this is not a government-run shared network. But a government that believes in a fast 5G rollout should be encouraging American carriers to make scarce capital go as far as possible, and thus make 5G networks go as far as possible. A government that consistently talks about 5G in rural America should be leading the creation of incentives for mobile operators to share network costs so that they may build out farther and faster into less dense areas.

Private network-sharing agreements work abroad with hundreds of such partnerships. Private network-sharing agreements worked when wireless was even more competitive and entrepreneurial. It makes sense now.

Does first to the tape really matter?

“The race to 5G is on and America must win,” President Trump said in April. Races are great political tools; no one wants the silver medal, especially when there is a matter of national honor, and possibly national security, at stake. In the 1960s we had the “missile gap” that ultimately turned out to be a specious political concoction. Is the “5G gap” the new politically concocted missile gap?

The United States was not first to deploy 1G, 2G, 3G or 4G. Even today, our deployment of 4G-LTE is far from ubiquitous, and the speed of our networks is slower than others in the world, while the price to consumers is higher.

“The speed of our networks is slower than others in the world, while the price to consumers is higher.”

So what constitutes “winning” the “5G race”? Is it being first to put 5G infrastructure in place? Is it having the greatest penetration across population and geography? Is it low prices that open access to more people? Is it innovative services using 5G?

Prohibiting American companies from doing business with Huawei shone a light on what counts as “winning” in mobile communications these days. The Trump administration put itself in the contradictory position of withholding the “winnings” of America’s technological and services leadership, while simultaneously warning about “losing” a so-called “race.”

 The U.S. “lost” the races to cross the tape first on earlier generations of wireless technology, but that didn’t stop American companies from “winning” to become world leaders. Google’s Android mobile operating system powers 75% of the world’s mobile devices. The Apple iOS operating system powers 23% of all mobile devices. That means that 98% of all the mobile devices in the world rely on U.S. technology. In the applications space, Facebook alone owns four of the world’s top five downloaded mobile apps. Qualcomm is the microprocessor brains of networks and devices, Cadence and Synopsys design software, and millions of mobile apps populate a list goes on and on to establish America as the world leader in mobile technology for reasons that transcend being first across the tape.

What should be worrisome in this regard is how the comingling of the administration’s China trade policy with 5G could affect that ability to lead. Regardless of whether the current Entity List related issues subside, the “genie does not just go back into the bottle,” New Street Research observed, “China’s priority will be striving for tech independence as rapidly as possible.” The risk of the present policy is that by deciding to cripple China’s wireless technology by denying it American components, we have endangered the true American “win” in the telecommunications future: the integration of American know how into products assembled elsewhere.

And while we’re considering the effect of trade policy on the “5G race,” FCC Commissioner Rosenworcel has warned, “Much of the network gear associated with 5G that is developed and used in the United States but assembled or produced in China will be assessed special tariffs of up to 25 percent.” She called it, “a tax on the deployment of 5G infrastructure.”

Ultimately, it is necessary to ask the question whether all the attention being directed to the “5G race” is about national leadership, or is it an attempt to obscure attention from the tough policy leadership required for the much more nitty-gritty issues inherent in 5G deployment?

The importance of the 5G future is something on which we should all be able to agree. Consumers, businesses and the American economy have much riding on that future. Therefore, it is essential that we stop treating 5G policy as a political prop. It is time to move our national policy beyond soundbites passed off as policy.

It’s time to identify the important 5G policy goals and pursue them in a focused manner. It is time to set goals beyond the amorphous “winning” of an ill-defined 5G race. Thus, 5G in five (not so) easy pieces would include our ability to focus on a set of measurable deliverables: (1) sufficient spectrum, especially in the mid-band; (2) cybersecurity as a forethought, not an afterthought, or a trade ploy, or a PR bauble; (3) fair access to networks and facilities necessary for 5G and open access on the 5G networks themselves; (4) the encouragement of innovative business practices to stretch the 5G infrastructure dollar so that 5G service stretches to serve more Americans; and (5) the realization that the American opportunity in 5G is about encouraging and protecting our leadership in global information services.

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