By Karl Bode
We’ve noted for a while that the “race to 5G” is largely just the byproduct of telecom lobbyists hoping to spike lagging smartphone and network hardware sales. Yes, 5G is important in that it will provide faster, more resilient networks when it’s finally deployed at scale years from now. But the society-altering impacts of the technology are extremely over-hyped, international efforts to deploy the faster wireless standard aren’t really a race, and even if it were, our broadband maps are so terrible (often by monopolist design), it would be impossible to actually determine who won.
A huge part of the idiotic “race to 5G” narrative involves ample fear mongering over China, or the idea that if China somehow deploys 5G faster to Chinese residents, that somehow means… anything to the consumers in the US already facing high prices and patchy availability. The reality is that China is well ahead of the United States in terms of 5G deployment already, and the 5G being deployed here in the States is notably slower than many overseas 5G deployments because of a lack of mid-band spectrum (aka policy failure). It’s simply not a race, and the monopoly-dominated US telecom sector isn’t likely to “win” it.
Yet another aspect of the whole “race to 5G” narrative is the endless pearl-clutching and face-fanning about Chinese telecom giant Huawei, and its role in helping build global 5G networks. The Trump administration has repeatedly tried to claim that Huawei should be unequivocally banned from participating in global 5G builds. Many lawmakers in Germany and the UK have repeatedly balked at this request, quite correctly noting that nobody in the Trump administration has been able to provide any public evidence that Huawei has spied on Americans or Europeans at scale.
Companies like Microsoft have expressed skepticism as well:
“When Microsoft asked US lawmakers to explain the threat, they’ve been too vague for Smith’s liking. Huawei is a major customer of his company: Its laptops come with Microsoft’s Windows operating system. “Oftentimes, what we get in response is, ‘Well, if you knew what we knew, you would agree with us’,” Smith told Bloomberg. “And our answer is, ‘Great, show us what you know so we can decide for ourselves. That’s the way this country works.'”
To be clear, Huawei engages in shaky, unethical behavior. But so does AT&T. So does Verizon. So does the NSA, routinely. And while there’s certainly security considerations when it comes to using Huawei’s gear, a lot of this hysteria has been driven in DC by companies like Cisco for years, simply because they don’t want to have to compete with cheaper Chinese hardware. It’s extremely easy to bury anti-competitive motivations under the din national security. And it’s pretty easy to hoodwink press outlets that can’t identify, much less navigate, their own patriotic bias.
Enter Senator Tom Cotton, who this week equated letting China help build global 5G networks to letting the USSR develop US submarines during the cold war:
“Tom Cotton, who represents Arkansas, said he had geopolitical and technical objections to Huawei and claimed that, if hacked, its equipment could track the movements of key parts for F35 fighter jets. Deploying Huawei, the politician continued, “would be as if we had relied on adversarial nations in the cold war to build our submarines, or to build our tanks. It’s just not something that we would have ever considered.”
Except that’s hyperbolic nonsense. Keep in mind, the US has already banned Huawei from its networks. And all the UK is proposing is letting Huawei participate in up to 35% of its network builds, which will need to undergo elaborate security and standards checks under the watchful eye of heavy skepticism. And again, there’s also this annoying fact that nobody has been able to provide public evidence that Huawei uses its gear to spy on Americans on behalf of the Chinese, despite fifteen years of vague allegations of this type, including a 18 month investigation by the US government that found… bupkis.
If there was evidence, the administration would have found some way to release at least a heavily redacted version of it. As a result, countries like the UK and Germany have argued that instead of engaging in a costly (and probably unenforceable) game of global blackballing, countries can simply refuse to use gear that can clearly be proven not to be secure via the elaborate security and safety processes that already exist. Many UK leaders are also quite correct in noting that this isn’t a subject the United States really has much credibility on given its history of surveillance, falsehoods, and leadership failures:
“Stewart McDonald, an SNP MP, also challenged Cotton, arguing that the behaviour of Donald Trump, particularly during the George Floyd crisis, adversely affected the United States’s ability to lead on the issue. “The current presidential leadership and, in particular, his style of leadership is grossly undermining,” McDonald said.”
Huawei, meanwhile, is likely correct in noting that the origins of this entire effort stems from companies that don’t want the Chinese giant encroaching on the US dominated smartphone and network hardware markets:
“Speaking after the hearing, Victor Zhang, the vice-president of Huawei, said the hearing demonstrated that the senator’s principal concern was that the company had become too successful in an industry where the US has traditionally dominated. “It’s clear its market position, rather than security concerns, underpins America’s attack on Huawei as the committee was given no evidence to substantiate security allegations,” he added.”
This is true. There’s an entire cottage industry of US industry lobbyists driving this train that simply don’t want to lose revenues via more intense Chinese competition. How much of this is genuine national security concerns? How much of this is lobbyist gamesmanship? Would the ratio even be measurable?
Again, Huawei is no saint. There’s evidence that the company has helped some governments in Africa spy on political opponents and journalists. But again, this is all stuff the United States, NSA, and partners like AT&T engage in on a regular basis, and you don’t see folks calling for a blacklisting of AT&T (can you imagine the US hyperventilation if a foreign government tried?). The United States has been such a rabid supporter of unchecked global spying — and bullshits so frequently on this subject — that it’s pretty hard to take us seriously when it comes to doling out advice on trust and surveillance.
Again it’s a complicated subject, and few involved with it seem up to the task of separating patriotism, bigotry, and the motivations of US giants like Cisco from intelligent global policy.