The United States and China are racing to build out high-speed 5G networks, and President Donald Trump doesn’t want America to come in second place.
Last week, Trump introduced initiatives to speed up the rollout of new wireless networks across the U.S., saying “the race to 5G is a race America must win.” But experts say the U.S. still lacks a clear 5G strategy that goes beyond attacking Huawei, a Chinese tech giant and the world’s biggest supplier of telecommunications equipment.
“I think they’ve been rather leaden-footed in the way they’ve responded,” Nigel Inkster, a former British intelligence official and senior advisor at the International Institute for Strategic Studies, told CNBC’s Beyond the Valley. “Firstly by lacking an explicit, government-articulated strategy in relation to 5G which is only now starting to emerge, but also in arguing or shaping the challenge from China and from Huawei solely as an espionage issue.”
5G is designed to bring faster speeds and lower lag times than previous wireless networks like 4G and 3G. While much has been said about how the networks will give consumers faster downloads of videos or games, 5G is perhaps more importantly a potential game-changer for functions such as driverless cars or remote surgery that require quick, reliable internet connections.
In his speech last week, Trump emphasized that the private sector needs to lead the way in building 5G networks across the United States. Mobile operators including Verizon and AT&T have started rolling out the networks in select cities, with limited success so far. China, meanwhile, has taken a centralized approach to 5G, pumping investments into the technology as a government initiative.
U.S. officials say Chinese companies like Huawei should not allowed to build out the critical infrastructure, such as radio networking equipment and software, that will enable 5G. They warn that Huawei equipment could create a backdoor for the Chinese government to spy on American networks — a claim the company has repeatedly denied.
Intelligence experts have been skeptical about Huawei’s assurances that it isn’t a security risk, pointing to Chinese laws that appear to require domestic companies to assist the government in intelligence gathering when the communist party in Beijing requests it.
“The simple fact is, irrespective about the laws on espionage or anything else … the actual reality is that in China, if the party wants something, they’re going to get it,” Inkster said.
5G is a centerpiece of China’s ambition to lead technology for the globe, according to Anthony Glees, director of the Centre for Security and Intelligence Studies at the University of Buckingham. He said China has the ability to “weaponize” technology like 5G.
“They seek to maximize the opportunities they have for extending their influence in the world and underpinning their global position and power,” he said in a phone interview on Thursday.
The U.S. has responded with an aggressive campaign to block Huawei in its own borders and to lobby traditional allies against it, too. Australia banned Huawei’s 5G equipment, Japan effectively did the same, and countries in Europe are assessing possible security threats.
Regardless, China is off to a strong start in the 5G race.
China “came out of the starting blocks,” according to Bill Lawrence, a lawyer focused on wireless telecommunications at U.S. firm Burr & Forman.
“At the end of the day, the U.S. is trying to outpace China for the lead,” he said.