To the average consumer, the concept of “5G” may seem obscure and unimportant – a flashy sell for Apple’s newest line. Over the past two decades, the telecommunication industry’s jump from “3G” to “4G” networking, and later to “LTE”, constituted changes which were arguably larger in name than in technology. They seem to resemble switches in marketing more than shifts in performance standards, and anticipation for “5G” networks have crawled as a result. 

5G, however, is a technological shift that is real and imminent – a change that will bring very observable effects to any user, regardless of its marketing.

Without dwelling on its technical aspects, 5G technology exploits new methods of data transmission which harness untapped frequencies on the radio spectrum. In effect, it transfers data 200 times faster than 4G, and practically eliminates latency (delay).

It is the tech which prospects of automated driving, e-cities, and more will be built upon. By 2035, it is estimated to spur twelve trillion dollars into the global economy, and be the basis of a revolutionary fourth industrial revolution”. 

While Silicon Valley has proved a dominant, driving force in the technological third industrial revolution” of the past 40 years, the race to 5G is one in which they clearly lag behind. Of the four telecom companies currently manufacturing 5G infrastructure, none are American.

Two, however, are Chinese, including Huawei, the undisputed leader in development. Between the superior quality and the lower pricing of their equipment, Huawei cornered about 30 per cent of the telecoms market in 2019. By most accounts, Huawei’s buyers will be the first to harness the full potential of 5G – deriving major economic benefits in effect. 

For the American industry, these facts have not gone unnoticed. Up until last year, Huawei was receiving an abundance of U.S. contracts as firms prepared for the roll-out of 5G. In May, however, the Trump administration issued an executive order banning contracts with Huawei, and explicit directions towards global allies to do the same.

The EU has largely declined, but Japan, New Zealand, and Australia have all followed suit. Initially, this action seemed to fall into the greater timeline of the U.S.-China trade war. Yet, as of recent, the narrative has shifted towards the idea that Huawei’s development of 5G is a potential national security threat. 

The link between modern technology and notions of national, as well as individual security risks, is not new. Experts, however, stress that 5G introduces unprecedented risks to cybersecurity.

For instance, 5G is characterized by a transition away from dependence on hardware, and towards systems run on software. Unlike hardware, the software is remotely accessible, and therefore more vulnerable to sabotage. The sheer volume of traffic that will flow through 5G networks means that breaches could be extremely hard to detect, as well as have the potential to produce severe consequences.

Many of these broader concerns regarding the technology feed into the United State’s decision to ban Huawei. Yet, it all ties together through the United States’ perceptions of whose interests the company represents, as many believe that Huawei acts as an extension of the Chinese state. The establishment of a Huawei-sponsored infrastructure in the U.S., therefore, would give Beijing the capability of exploiting 5G systems within the U.S. 

While Huawei is quick to deny the accusations, they are not unfounded. For one, Chinese law creates certain obligations for the company; a 2017 law grants the state access to Huawei infrastructure in the circumstance that Beijing believes it needs an “intelligence advantage.”

Furthermore, much of Huawei’s innovative success, and price competitiveness, stems from subsidies coming from the government. Links between the company and the PLA, as well as past instances of security breaches, makes Huawei’s claim to professionalism and sovereignty even murkier. 

Attempting to eliminate the influence of Huawei within domestic markets, however, is not a long-term solution for the U.S., or any states that have taken that step. The transition to 5G is inevitable – should China achieve it first, it will enjoy an unrivalled economic and militaristic expansion.

Some U.S. hardliners have advocated escalating the current trade war, and cut off the aspects of Beijing’s supply chain that it is still dependent on the U.S. for. This, however, would only lead the Chinese telecoms industry towards long-term self-sufficiency, and further marginalize the U.S. market.

Industry experts stress the idea that viewing 5G development in terms of a geopolitical struggle simply escalates the risks for everyone. In a system that is vulnerable by default – where cyberattackers hold a clear offensive advantage – the development of defensive protocols and technologies is a task that involves coordination, and the full utilization of existing resources.

Were the U.S. to ban the usage of its technologies in China, for example, Beijing would be forced to hastily develop its own versions. Inevitably, these technologies would be more vulnerable to breaches than the hardened U.S. versions.

Unfortunately, this viewpoint has gained little traction within the U.S. or Chinese circles. Since May, the United States’ prosecution of Huawei has only escalated. New federal charges formally accuse the company of decades-long efforts to extract sensitive data from U.S. firms. As countries decide whether or not they align with Huawei, the results have become increasingly politicized, as demonstrated by recent US-UK tensions. There is a growing expectation for states to choose sides in what is being framed as a bipolar, tech cold war of sorts. 

As 5G technologies do eventually roll out, it will be hard to look past the extraordinary benefits which the average consumer will derive – at least at first.

What will slowly emerge is the reality that an exponential increase in computing capabilities is accompanied by an even greater increase in cybersecurity threats.

Moreover, we should find that these risks are not exclusive to the Chinese-U.S. relationship. Politicizing the development of 5G is a mistake which overlooks the fact that protecting cybersecurity is a universal interest. It is a mistake that will likely be felt by winners and losers alike, no matter which way any iron curtain falls. 

 Edited by Rebecka Pieder.

The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author and they do not reflect the position of the McGill Journal of Political Studies or the Political Science Students’ Association. 

Image via Flickr Creative Commons