Proposal for Government Wireless Network Shows Fear of China

The interstate highway system wasn’t built in the name of convenience or even commerce. When President Dwight D. Eisenhower signed the Federal Aid Highway Act of 1956, he did it in the name of national security. In fact, the official name of the system is the Dwight D. Eisenhower National System of Interstate and Defense Highways.

Now some in the Trump administration are arguing that the federal government should build a broadband wireless network for much the same reason. Today’s mobile networks are known as “4G” networks because they are the fourth generation of wireless technologies. Carriers are already planning “5G” networks. But a presentation and memo by the National Security Council disclosed by Axios on Sunday proposes that the government build a nationalized 5G network out of fears of falling behind China both economically and militarily.

The proposal is unlikely to become reality and is already being criticized by other government agencies, the telecommunications industry, and both Democrats and Republicans. The White House denies that it has any plans to follow through on the proposal and told Recode that the presentation was dated. But the proposal sheds light on growing concerns within the government that the US isn’t keeping pace with China.

The NSC presentation also argues that a national network would generate significant economic benefits to rural areas currently underserved by commercial broadband providers. But China is its main focus.

“The general concern is that Chinese manufacturers like Huawei will become so dominant in the equipment market that there will be essentially no way to avoid using their equipment in future deployment of 5G networks,” says Harold Feld, senior vice president of the open internet advocacy group Public Knowledge. “It’s a matter of some considerable concern from the perspective of the security apparatus.” The presentation suggests that a government-backed network would ensure that 5G networks are instead built by US companies like Cisco and Juniper Networks.

The memo envisions that the US would create a central 5G network based on a chunk of wireless spectrum now used mostly by satellite communications providers, and then lease network connectivity wholesale to providers like AT&T and Verizon. That would be a radical departure from the status quo because normally these providers build their own network infrastructure and only lease spectrum from the government. Even government networks are usually built and operated by major carriers. However, under the plan, private carriers could continue building their own infrastructure using other chunks of the spectrum; that would let carriers distinguish themselves from one another, so the national network wouldn’t entirely replace private networks.

The documents shouldn’t be taken as evidence that the White House ever seriously considered building a national 5G network, a former intelligence officer familiar with the National Security Council tells WIRED. Instead, it’s an indication that the NSC is considering a wide range of possibilities to address a perceived threat from China. How much weight these types of presentations carry depends on the seniority of who makes them, the former intelligence officer says. Proposals rarely, if ever, are implemented in their original form. If the NSC decides to consider a proposal, it will end up being modified by multiple people within the organization and from outside organizations as well. And in this case, other government agencies have already spoken out against the idea.

Among the critics is Ajit Pai, the Republican chair of the Federal Communications Commission, the agency in charge of allocating the wireless spectrum. “The main lesson to draw from the wireless sector’s development over the past three decades—including American leadership in 4G—is that the market, not government, is best positioned to drive innovation and investment,” Pai said in a statement. “What government can and should do is to push spectrum into the commercial marketplace and set rules that encourage the private sector to develop and deploy next-generation infrastructure.”

Pai’s fellow commissioners, both Democrat and Republican, agreed with him. “This correctly diagnoses a real problem,” Democratic commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel‏ wrote on Twitter. “There is a worldwide race to lead in #5G and other nations are poised to win. But the remedy proposed here really misses the mark.”

Even if the political will were there, such a plan would be extremely difficult to implement. A nationwide wireless network is “too large, too complex, needs constant maintenance and virus protection, and always needs to be upgraded,” says telecommunications industry analyst Jeff Kagan.

5G isn’t a single technology or wireless frequency. Instead, it will be an industry-wide standard for a range of different technologies developed by technology and telecommunications companies around the world; the standard itself is not expected to be completed until 2020. Much of the preliminary work on 5G is based on what’s known as the “millimeter wave spectrum,” a very high-frequency range of the spectrum. In theory, that would allow very-high-speed connections, about 10 times faster than current typical home fiber-optic lines. The catch is that millimeter wave connections tend to have a shorter range. That means that instead building a few big antennas to blanket a city with wireless connectivity, carriers would need to deploy many more smaller antennas. That requires a huge rethink in how these networks are built.

The NSC presentation argues that cellular towers using the mid-range band spectrum would be able to blanket more of the country with wireless coverage than would be possible with millimeter wave technology. That means a mid-range band spectrum 5G network would be faster and cheaper to build, because it wouldn’t require carriers to deploy gobs of smaller antennae. But the presentation admits the proposal could face opposition from satellite providers that already license mid-band spectrum from the government. The FCC, meanwhile, is already considering opening up more of the mid-range band.

The presentation argues that China is a skilled actor in cyber espionage and conflict, and argues that unless the US takes extensive, deliberate precautions to control and secure its 5G network, “China will win politically, economically, and militarily.”

This has been a growing concern for the US. In January, AT&T backed out of a deal to carry Huawei smartphones, reportedly because of pressure from Congress. Lawmakers have even pressured AT&T to cut Huawei out of group efforts to establish the 5G standard, according to a Reuters report. Shortly after, Republican lawmakers proposed a bill that would ban federal agencies from doing business with companies or organizations that use Chinese-made networking equipment. A 2013 law already requires federal law-enforcement agencies approve any government purchase of tech gear from China. In 2012, a Congressional report concluded that telecommunications providers should avoid equipment from Chinese brands. Reuters later reported that a White House review found no evidence that Huawei had actually spied for China.

Observers agree to a point that the more 5G equipment China develops and manufactures, the more the country will be able to impact the global supply chain and potentially sneak backdoors, clandestine or illicit access points, into infrastructure hardware and software.

Researchers note, though, that a nationalized 5G network wouldn’t necessarily be more secure, particularly since most of the expertise for building wireless networks is inside private companies, not government agencies. “There is no logic that connects federal management of a telecom network to increased security from foreign surveillance or cyber attacks,” says Nathan Freitas, the founder and director of the Guardian Project, a privacy and security nonprofit that works on secure telecommunications. “What is needed are networks with strong authentication, encryption and privacy-preserving features.” He says it would be more efficient for the government to help pay for threat modeling, security audits, and open-source projects, “to ensure the corporate giants don’t screw up 5G deployment themselves.”

Regardless of who builds the 5G network in the US, one larger question is whether the international telecom community will prioritize security as it develops 5G standards. The groups developing the standards face two options, says Pavel Novikov, head of telecom security research group at the security firm Positive Technologies. “Base 5G on 4G networks—in this case, the security of these networks will not be different from 4G. [Or create] an absolutely new network. Building completely new 5G networks will take a huge investment.”

More than worrying that any one adversary will beat the US to the punch, experts say the US can best protect mobile data users by investing both public and private funds in auditing new infrastructure, avoiding Chinese equipment if needed, and focusing on implementing protocols that emphasize privacy-preserving features like encryption and strong authentication. As Freitas puts it, “Our current networks, where any number can be forged and someone can pretend to be a cell tower with a $100 box in their backpack are so hilariously bad that anything would be better than what we have today.”

Wireless Wars

  • 5G networks will be really fast, but the technology is rolling out really slowly.
  • Congress has harbored suspicions about Chinese telecommunications equipment at least since 2012.
  • The US accuses China of using telecom equipment for spying, but the accusations go both ways.

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