Senate Report on 5G: Recipe for Disaster

The Democratic Staff Report Prepared for the use of the Committee on Foreign Relations United States Senate, July 21, 2020, entitled "The New Big Brother," is actually all about 5G technology. The report jumps on the runaway anti-China train chaotically flailing around Washington these days to "out-Trump, Trump." It characterizes 5G technology, longstanding international collaboration, and COVID-19 tracking as all part of a global conspiracy for "digital authoritarianism" run out of Beijing. The proposed recommendations call for removing the U.S. from the real world to a 5G Fantasia by creating an "American 5G telecommunications alternative" that would consist of an "Industry Consortium on 5G" combined with a "Federally Funded Research and Development Center (FFRDC) on 5G" — which are not only preposterous but also recipe for utter disaster. It is the 5G equivalent of "drink disinfectant to cure COVID-19." Ironically, it also bears a resemblance to the looney Trump NSC proposal in 2017 to create a U.S. Ministry of 5G Telecommunications.

Everything occurring in the 5G space in Washington today is utterly bereft of understanding of the 5G subject matter and driven by political abstractions and the politics of jingoism and xenophobia. The different branches of government, agencies, and K-street non-profits — spanning both political parties — are trying to outdo each with ever more outlandish assertions and proposals. As part of the game, each is also trying to ensnare potential offshore partners in a 5G dance of the loon. Fortunately, countries who have a better understanding of the subject matter and less vulnerable politicians have rejected Trump's overtures. Banning is a "lewser" strategy that only begets less security and a failure in the global marketplace.

A Short Overview of the Senate Report

If you jump to Annex 2 of the report — which is devoted to "the United States and 5G" — you can get a sense of what the Report authors know about the subject matter — which is basically nothing. It largely consists of radio spectrum lobbying material floating around Washington for the past several years. The word "virtualization" appears nowhere, and indeed the basics of 5G architectures, services, and protocols are not even mentioned. The entire conceptualization of 5G revolves around local political mantras citing concerns raised by "former military leaders." Most of the discussion and citations revolve around the radio spectrum, which is the least significant 5G development component. The only fact that they get right is that the U.S. has no radio access network transceiver vendors — which is almost irrelevant and of minimal strategic interest to the U.S. They obviously did not read the 5G Primer or examine any authoritative source materials.

Where the report really goes off the rails is the section on International Standards-Setting Bodies. It only treats two of the many bodies involved — 3GPP and the "International Telecommunications [sic] Union." The report blathers endlessly about the fact that the current ITU Secretary-General, Houlin Zhao, happens to be from China — ignoring the fact that ITU is a federation of bodies and the Secretary-General just runs the General Secretariat. As a kind of new low in despicable disparagement, the report describes Sec-Gen Zhao solely as "a former delegate at the Designing Institute of the Ministry of Posts and Telecommunications of China." It fails to say that he held this position as a young engineer almost forty years ago before he came to the ITU and served admirably for the past four decades as a CCITT study group support engineer, Director of the Telecommunication Standardization Bureau and Deputy Secretary-General. He has devoted his career to furthering global communications for every nation.

The pièce de résistance of this Report is the Conclusions and Recommendations section. It begins with a Trumpian conspiracy theory — 5G is all about a "digital authoritarianism" model perpetuated by China. It even contains an echo of McCarthyism, claiming that "the United States is now on the precipice of losing the future of the cyber domain to China."

The proposed recommendations would be a disaster for the U.S. It begins with the bogus assertion that "United States lags behind China in developing and deploying cutting-edge 5G technologies." It then leverages that assertion to saw off the U.S. from the rest of the world — calling for a U.S. 5G developed through a 5G Federally Funded Research and Development Center (FFRDC) "to surpass China," coupled with Industry Consortium on 5G "comprised of leading U.S. telecommunications and technology companies that would be mandated to create the American 5G telecommunications alternative."

It polishes off these absurd suggestions with several additional worthless proposals. How about one for money for "RAN technologies" and for a "5G Policy Coordinator within the White House." The former ignores that the most revolutionary component of 5G is Network Functions Virtualisation (NFV), and that Trump has had a 5G Policy Coordinator for the past three years. The principal need here is a modicum of Washington 5G cluefulness, not another warm body occupying the EOP.

Then the report asserts that "China is a leading developer and exporter of surveillance technologies" (along with many other countries, including the U.S.), and calls for pouring money into a "Digital Rights Promotion Fund," plus an "International Digital Infrastructure Corporation" to help sell "U.S.-made digital infrastructure," and an "Open Technology Fund." Rather amusingly, the last idea was actually implemented several years ago and helped further Assange's Wikileaks.

Potential hope with Biden

The impending Biden Administration will inherit a Post Pandemic and dysfunctional national government in six months, and faces challenges of monumental proportions on all fronts. On the 5G and related China political front, the Biden planners will also face being sucked into the bottomless Trump xenophobia whirlpool as one of the few cards left to play. The Senate 5G Report, unfortunately, is a depressing example of how "know nothingism" can span political parties, in Washington's own version of Dumb and Dumber.

A post-Trump strategic plan for the U.S. should consist of three objectives. First is to replace the xenophobic banning policy with one that establishes an effective, fungible, non-dominant balance of all vendor products and services in the nation's infrastructure similar to that pursued by most of Europe. Second is to create an effective, global standards-based security regime via existing global industry bodies for hardware and software that consists of a combination of rigorous initial type approval and testing, combined with continuous monitoring for threats and rapid remediation of discovered vulnerabilities. Third is to re-build and facilitate the effective engagement of both U.S. government agencies and industry and personnel in all the international collaborative bodies as peers — especially those focused on national security and infrastructure protection capabilities. The U.K. NCSC provides a good Western model for what is possible. China — whose effectiveness has been largely due to its emulating former U.S. global strategies — is actually a good example of how to effectively participate in and contribute to 5G work.

These three steps also need to be accompanied by a knowledgeable understanding of the profound changes in underlying major evolution in network technologies, architectures and services. 5G radio technologies are a minor part of this evolution. The most significant changes revolve around virtualization of network components, architectures, and services, and the ability to orchestrate them on demand. Legacy internets disappear, and new low latency network protocols and network capabilities emerge.

Hopefully the Washington 5G loons will find a home on another planet.

Written by Anthony Rutkowski, Principal, Netmagic Associates LLC

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Senate Report on 5G: Recipe for Disaster