This article originally appeared on Lawfare by Margaret Taylor.
There is near-universal agreement on Capitol Hill about the importance of American leadership in the field of 5G technology as well as the importance of protecting the networks of the United States and its allies’ networks from prying eyes and cyberattacks. There is also consensus that the United States is playing catch-up compared to competitors like China and that more needs to be done. Both the House and the Senate have held hearings addressing 5G this year, and members have used national security-related hearings to raise questions and gather information about 5G. At least 23 legislative items that specifically mention or address 5G—10 in the Senate and 13 in the House—have been introduced in the 116th Congress. Most are bipartisan and many are also bicameral, meaning the same text is supported by both Democrats and Republicans and has been introduced in both the House and the Senate.
But it is doubtful that the 116th Congress will muster any broad-based response that will materially change the trajectory of the United States’s deployment of 5G technology or the security of the network. Because 5G will remain a private-sector-led initiative in the United States, the government’s role is limited largely to debating regulatory issues. There is no broad consensus on whether or how federal regulation should preempt local regulations on sensitive local issues like infrastructure installation, nor any consensus on how to make available the resources necessary to bridge the financial gap so that rural areas in the United States get 5G coverage. And while most observers agree that the aggressive implementation of 5G by Chinese companies around the world poses serious security concerns for the United States, Congress is still holding out hope that simple moves like banning the Chinese company Huawei will solve the security problem. It will not.
More broadly, the reality is that adequate political will does not exist on Capitol Hill to tackle the complicated, multifaceted and resource-intensive issue of 5G in a meaningful way. In the current political environment, it may take a Sputnik moment—when the Soviet Union launched the first satellite into space, spurring the United States to redouble efforts to catch up in the space race—to capture the interest and concern of everyday Americans and, by extension, their elected representatives.
Meanwhile, the Trump administration has employed impressive rhetoric on 5G but has no real plan and lacks both leadership and interagency coordination on the issue. The executive branch is also making moves—like trying to reduce regulations at the local level and using the Chinese technology company Huawei as a tool in a trade war with China—that have uncertain outcomes and could end up hurting the effort to deploy 5G quickly and securely.
The 116th Congress will accomplish the minimum incremental steps needed to make the claim that Congress is doing something on 5G. But it likely will not unlock the resources needed to securely deploy 5G in the United States in a timely way or to assure a technological edge over international competitors on 5G. Instead, Congress’s principal achievements this year and next will be to provide oversight of the Trump administration’s actions related to 5G and lay the groundwork for serious consideration of this issue in 2021.
Several useful primers have been published explaining what, exactly, 5G is and why it poses new and different challenges compared to older-generation networks. Mobile service providers are currently in the process of deploying 5G networks throughout the United States, and some providers have already launched 5G services in certain cities. Some telecommunications companies estimate the full rollout of 5G will take a decade or longer. The Congressional Research Service offers research on various technical aspects of the 5G challenge as well as broader contextual analyses for congressional consideration. Meanwhile, my Brookings colleagues have outlined a number of 5G challenges and opportunities, including how 5G could be used to advance environmental sustainability and help cities manage scarce resources efficiently, how 5G will impact the future of health care, and how 5G rollout could impact communities of color in the United States.
In addition, Lawfare has published multiple articles addressing the security challenges associated with 5G. Jim Baker summarized the situation:
5G promises to revolutionize how people use technology. From transportation to health care to entertainment, the way people interact with wireless internet devices will change substantially. And as 5G enables data to be transmitted much more quickly, the number of devices connected to the internet will likely explode, producing massive economic benefits for those who can quickly take full advantage of the new technology.
But 5G poses huge risks for society as well. As people become more dependent on wireless communications and generate even more data about what they are doing, the adoption of 5G will bring with it substantial national security, cybersecurity and privacy risks. These risks must be mitigated appropriately in order to protect the interests of the United States and its allies.
Others on Lawfare debated the best way to manage the technical security risks presented by Huawei’s dominant position in 5G. My colleagues Tom Wheeler and Robert Williams pointed out that the Trump administration’s imposition of export restrictions on Huawei and other Chinese companies will not be sufficient to stem the security threat from China, and that the Trump administration has in fact killed or missed opportunities to increase the security of the network.
Congress began taking a serious look at 5G issues in 2018 and passed a number of laws in the prior Congress aimed at facilitating aspects of 5G—including, for example, laws aimed at making more spectrum (the range of radio waves used for communications purposes) available to telecommunications companies to support 5G. How countries make spectrum available to telecommunications providers plays an important role in how, and on what timeline, new networks and services are rolled out. In the United States, spectrum traditionally is auctioned to telecommunications providers, and the money goes to the U.S. Treasury.
Spectrum issues will be a perennial issue and will continue to percolate. But Congress is also considering a range of other issues related to 5G and is weighing a range of approaches—some of which have more merit than others.
Bipartisan Pushback on Nationalization of 5G
In theory, government control of the 5G network could increase security and ensure that 5G reaches rural markets where there is currently little profit incentive for private industry to build infrastructure and provide services. Congressional responses to proposals to nationalize parts of the 5G network offer a window into the political aspect of the 5G issue.
The nationalization idea has been advanced twice, each time for a different reason. First, in early 2018, a leaked National Security Council memo proposed that the U.S. government pay to build a single 5G network—an unprecedented nationalization of private infrastructure—in order to compete with China and protect the system from malicious cyber actors. Second, in March 2019, Politico reported that Trump 2020 campaign officials supported a proposal—which reportedly “spark[ed] wireless industry fears of nationalization”—under which the government would take over spectrum designated for 5G and develop a system to share the spectrum with wireless providers on a wholesale basis. According to Politico, this was a bid by Trump campaign officials to woo rural voters who have lacked adequate internet service in the absence of financial incentives for wireless companies to offer affordable broadband. The plan was reportedly backed by Trump 2020 Campaign Manager Brad Parscale and Adviser Newt Gingrinch.
Congressional pushback was clear and bipartisan. Sens. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, and Catherine Cortez-Masto, D-Nev., twice introduced the thoroughly named Eliminate From Regulators Opportunities to Nationalize The Internet in Every Respect (EFRONTIER) Act. It would prohibit the president and federal agencies from constructing, operating, or offering wholesale or retail service on a broadband network “unless a duly enacted Act of Congress signed into law by the President provides the President or the agency … with that authority.” An identical bipartisan bill was introduced on the House side. And another pair of bipartisan, bicameral bills calling for the Trump administration to produce a strategy report contains an explicit limitation that the report “shall not include a recommendation or a proposal to Federalize 5th or future generations mobile telecommunications systems or infrastructure.” Yet another bipartisan Senate bill is broader in scope but includes a statement that it is the policy of the United States that “the Federal Government should … support but not build or operate 5G networks.”
The pushback worked. Some commentators speculated that the real reason the administration hastily put together a 5G event in April 2019—purportedly to announce two Trump administration efforts to promote 5G—was so the president could publicly calm fears about nationalization. And Trump did, stating at the event, “In the United States, our approach is private-sector driven and private-sector led. Government doesn’t have to spend lots of money…. We had another alternative of doing it that would be through government investment and leading through the government. We don’t want to do that because it won’t be nearly as good, nearly as fast.” Bipartisan congressional opposition, along with opposition by the major telecommunications providers, seemed to have forced the president to publicly rebut his presidential campaign and state his position clearly.
Bipartisan Agreement About the Threats Posed by China
The most common issue addressed in proposed legislation is the challenge posed by China both as an economic competitor to the United States in the “race” to deploy and dominate 5G and as a national security espionage and cyberattack threat. China is the current leader in less expensive technologies for 5G and is likely to deploy the world’s first 5G wide-area network. According to the Congressional Research Service, Huawei has signed contracts for the construction of 5G infrastructure in around 30 countries, including U.S. allies like Turkey and Iceland. American companies, which lack the technology and the financial incentive to seek these contracts, are not currently joining the competition.
The 5G national security issue for the United States is multifaceted. In April, four former high-level military officials issued a statement expressing “grave concerns about a future where a Chinese-developed 5G network is widely adopted among our allies and partners.” The concerns were threefold: espionage, the security of future military operations, and the vulnerability of democracy and human rights around the world.
A number of legislative proposals have sought to articulate the problem. A bipartisan Senate concurrent resolution states that “Chinese telecommunications companies such as Huawei and ZTE pose serious threats to the national security of the United States and allies of the United States” and that “the United States should reiterate to countries that are choosing to incorporate Huawei or ZTE products in their new telecommunications infrastructure that the United States will consider all necessary measures to limit the risks incurred by entities of the United States Government or Armed Forces from use of such compromised networks.” Among other things, it finds that “the United States should work with the private sector and allies and partners of the United States, including the European Union, in a regularized bilateral or multilateral format, to identify secure, cost-effective, and reliable alternatives to Huawei or ZTE products.”
Other bills seek to gather information about national security threats to 5G. The Senate Intelligence Committee’s authorization bill, S. 1589, and the similar House bill, H.R. 3678, require the director of national intelligence to submit a report to Congress addressing “(1) the threat to United States national security posed by the global and regional adoption of fifth-generation (5G) wireless network technology built by foreign companies; and (2) the effect of possible efforts to mitigate the threat.” Another pair of bipartisan, bicameral bills, called the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Act of 2019, address select 5G issues as part of a broader bill to address problems posed by the rise of China as identified by the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission. One section requires the administration to submit an annual report to Congress on supply-chain vulnerabilities related to China, including an “assessment of the existing procurement and security policies and guidance of each Federal agency with respect to cybersecurity, operations security, physical security, information security, and data security that may affect information and communications technology, fifth generation mobile networks (commonly known as ‘5G networks’) and the Internet of Things.” Another section requires a one-time report from the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) and the Commerce Department on steps required to ensure the rapid and secure deployment of 5G networks in the United States, with a particular focus on the threat posed by equipment and services designed or manufactured in China, as well as information on any new statutory authorities that may be required to ensure the security of domestic 5G networks.
A pair of bipartisan, bicameral bills sponsored by John Cornyn, R-Texas, in the Senate and Abigail Spanberger, D-Va., in the House, called the Secure 5G and Beyond Act of 2019, goes a small step further, requiring the administration to produce a strategy in six months that would: (1) “ensure the security of 5th and future generations mobile telecommunications systems and infrastructure within the United States”; (2) assist allies and strategic partners “in maximizing the security of 5th and future generations mobile telecommunications systems and infrastructure inside their countries”; and (3) “protect the competitiveness of United States companies, privacy of United States consumers, and integrity of standards setting bodies against political influence.” The bill outlines 17 elements to be included in the strategy, including a “description of such legislative or administrative action as may be necessary to carry out the strategy.”
A more comprehensive, bipartisan bill offers some concrete ideas. The United States 5G Leadership Act of 2019, introduced by Sens. Roger Wicker, R-Miss., Mark Warner, D-Va., Tom Cotton, R-Ark., and Ed Markey, D-Mass., prohibits the purchase—from any of the universal service funds outlined in section 254 of the Communications Act of 1934 (47 U.S.C. § 254)—of communications equipment and services from Chinese companies, any other entity that poses a national security risk, and “any company that is subject to extrajudicial direction from a foreign government.” It also aims to subsidize smaller providers (6 million customers or fewer) with a new $700 million Supply Chain Trust Fund (funded from the sale of spectrum) to ensure that such providers are purchasing uncompromised equipment and services. It requires a one-time report from the administration on steps to ensure the secure deployment and availability of 5G networks and “any new statutory authority required to ensure the security of 5G networks in the United States.” Finally, it establishes a “joint program to share information regarding security, risks, and vulnerabilities with United States communication providers and trusted suppliers” including small businesses and companies serving rural areas and directs the prioritization of federal funds “to enhance representation of the United States at international forums that set standards for 5G networks and for future generations of wireless communications networks.”
Several other bills begin to address the particular security challenges that the Department of Defense will face if 5G networks are not secure. The Senate Armed Services Committee’s National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), S.1790, includes two sections that address 5G directly. Section 212 requires the secretary of defense to establish secure 5G wireless network components and capabilities “at no fewer than two Department of Defense installations.” One, at the Nevada Test and Training Range, would allow the Department of Defense “to explore and demonstrate the utility of using fifth-generation wireless networking technology to enhance combat operations.” A second installation would “explore and demonstrate infrastructure implementations of high bandwidth, scalable, and low latency fifth-generation wireless networking technology” and “[a]pplications for secure fifth-generation wireless network capabilities for the Department.” On the House side, the House Armed Services Committee’s NDAA, H.R. 2500, requires the secretary of defense to develop a strategy for harnessing 5G technologies to enhance military capabilities, maintain a technological advantage on the battlefield, and “accelerate the deployment of new commercial products and services enabled by 5G networks throughout the Department of Defense.” It proposes a $175 million increase in funds for such research.
One bipartisan bill in the Senate, introduced by Martin Heinrich, D-N.M., and Rob Portman, R-Ohio, focuses on training personnel in the Armed Forces in light of new technology challenges like 5G. S.1471, the Armed Forces Digital Advantage Act, seeks to “promote and maintain digital engineering as a core competency of the Armed Forces” and charges the under secretary of defense for personnel and readiness to carry out “the recruitment, development, and incentivization of retention in and to the Armed Forces of individuals with aptitude, experience, proficient expertise, or a combination thereof in digital engineering.”
Finally, some bills address head-on the challenges posed by international economic competition. A Senate resolution “deems it a national priority for the United States to lead the world in the development and deployment” of 5G techology and “strongly urges all entities, including Federal agencies, to work cooperatively with the Federal Communications Commission to advance the goal of United States leadership in 5G technology, including at the upcoming World Radiocommunication Conference 2019.” Section 103 of the bipartisan H.R.3407 would require the Export-Import Bank to establish a Program on China and Transformational Exports specifically to support the extension of loans, guarantees and insurance to American companies that are fully competitive with how China and other countries that use subsidies to increase exports treat their domestic companies. The explicit aims are to “directly neutralize export subsidies for competing goods and services financed by official export credit, tied aid, or blended financing provided by the People’s Republic of China or by a covered country” and “advance the comparative leadership of the United States with respect to the People’s Republic of China, or support United States innovation, employment, and technological standards, through direct exports” in a number of areas, including “[w]ireless communications equipment (including 5G or subsequent wireless technologies).” H.R. 3679 directs the director of national intelligence, through the director of the Intelligence Advanced Research Projects Agency, to carry out a prize competition worth up to $5 million to competitively stimulate research and development relevant to 5G technology.
At this point, it is difficult to say which of these many bills may become law. The yearly NDAA is probably the most important single item to follow: Unlike smaller stand-alone bills, the NDAA will almost certainly become law.
Lack of Consensus on How to Address State and Local Impediments to Small Cell Deployment
The timely rollout out 5G in the United States faces significant hurdles. Rollout of 5G across the United States could take a decade or longer due to a lack of investment in low-density areas as well as a lack of cooperation at the local level. The United States trails other countries, most notably China, in site density of 5G infrastructure. Many Asian countries already have far denser infrastructure for their 4G network and, as a result, have a head start on the density required for 5G. One Chinese company called China Tower has a total of approximately 1.9 million wireless sites in China, compared to a total of approximately 200,000 in the United States across all companies. China has installed 350,000 cell sites since 2015, whereas the United States has installed fewer than 30,000 during the same time period. That means China is deploying an average of 460 cell sites a day within the country—12 times the United States’s pace.
The importance of speedy deployment of 5G in the United States is the subject of some debate. Some observers hold the view that network effects—in which the value of a product or service is dependent on a high number of users—could grant a first-adopter sustained advantage and the potential to capture a greater share of the economic potential of 5G. Put another way, countries with the largest and most reliable networks will have a head start in developing the technologies enabled by faster speeds that can then be exported to other 5G markets. Others make the point that the United States was not the first to roll out 1G, 2G, 3G or 4G but nonetheless is currently the world leader in the chips, operating systems and software applications that run on 4G; and that the United States should instead “race” to make 5G both secure and available to all Americans.
The arduous and intense installation requirements for 5G mean that many more workers—including engineers, planners, trench diggers and antenna installers—will need to be trained in related skills if 5G is to take place in a competitive time frame. To address this problem, one bipartisan bill in the House, titled the Communications Jobs Training Act of 2019, focuses on educational training requirements to support 5G deployment and implementation. The bill amends the Communications Act of 1934 (47 U.S.C. § 301 et seq.) to require the FCC, in consultation with the secretary of education, to carry out a grant program to establish or expand job training programs in community, vocational and technical schools for communications tower service, construction, maintenance and structural modification. Whether this bill gains any traction remains to be seen.
But a far more important and controversial issue looms. There is a major question of how the United States’s federalist system will handle the challenge posed by the sheer volume and density of the infrastructure needed to fully deploy 5G. Under China’s system of government, there are no similar impediments based on local rules or control. If the rollout of 5G is a proxy for a great power competition between China and the United States, China has a distinct advantage in this regard.
Earlier generation technologies like 3G and 4G required the installation of large 200-foot cell towers spaced relatively far apart and were the subject of much regulatory oversight at the local level. 5G requires high-volume, pizza-box-sized small cells that are more compact but must be much more densely installed for 5G to achieve its full potential.
In September 2018, the FCC issued an order titled “Accelerating Wireless Broadband Deployment by Removing Barriers to Infrastructure Investment,” requiring localities to consider applications for siting of “small cell” equipment—a key component of 5G deployment—quickly and on a limited number of criteria. Twenty-five states refused to adopt the FCC’s rule. Generally speaking, these states oppose the preemption of state and local regulations, particularly state and local fees, time frames for cell-siting decisions, and aesthetic requirements. A number of municipalities filed petitions for review in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, alleging, among other things, that the FCC’s order exceeds the commission’s statutory authority. (Several mobile service providers, including AT&T, Verizon and Sprint, also filed petitions for review in federal appellate courts with various other complaints.)
While some members of Congress support the administration’s effort to cut through state and local regulatory frameworks to facilitate quicker 5G deployment, others oppose taking regulatory decision-making away from local officials. A January House bill sponsored by 50 Democrats (no Republicans were involved) aims to restore local regulatory control in the deployment of 5G by causing the administration’s order to have “no force or effect.” Many localities are encouraging their representatives in Congress to support local control. Cities in Ventura County, for example, are urging California Sens. Dianne Feinstein and Kamala Harris to introduce their own legislation or support the House bill.
In June, Sens. John Thune, R-S.D., and Brian Schatz, D-Hawaii, introduced S.1699, the STREAMLINE Small Cell Deployment Act, to deal with the statutory authority claims at issue in the various lawsuits. The bill codifies parts of the FCC’s rule and likewise aims to expedite the process of deploying the hundreds of thousands of small cell antennas and related infrastructure that is necessary to enable 5G connectivity in the United States. Specifically, it sets fee limits and timelines, and makes other regulatory reforms to accelerate the buildout of 5G infrastructure in communities across the United States. Applications for siting of small cells can be denied or regulated only on certain grounds and must be acted on no later than 90 days after the date on which the request is filed. Fees set by states and localities must be reasonable, publicly disclosed, competitively neutral, and based on actual and direct costs.
Finally, highly localized decision-making could leave 5G efforts more vulnerable to foreign disinformation and other tactics used by adversaries to slow down or impair the United States’s efforts on 5G. For example, in May, the New York Times reportedthat Russian propaganda outlet RT America is ramping up efforts to spread unsubstantiated fears about 5G’s potential dire health threats, including “brain cancer, infertility, autism, heart tumors, and Alzheimer’s disease.” RT has run seven programs in 2019 alone on the topic, including an April 14 segment falsely reporting that children exposed to 5G cellphone towers may suffer cancer, nosebleeds and learning disabilities. Unlike China, which has been building an economic advantage in the 5G space for years, Russia occupies a weak place in the 5G ecosystem. Its only way to compete economically is to undermine and discredit the United States’s 5G efforts.
Oversight of the Administration’s Actions
In addition to legislative initiatives, Congress can also conduct oversight of the Trump administration’s actions in the 5G space. On the one hand, the Trump administration’s rhetoric on the importance of leading on 5G has been clear and forceful. In September 2018, the White House convened a 5G summit, emphasizing the theme “America first, 5G first.” The next month, the president directed the creation of a national spectrum strategy for keeping the United States at the forefront of 5G wireless network technology. He has since tweeted positively on the topic. At an April 12 event at the White House, Trump said that the United States could not allow “any other country to outcompete the United States” in the race to 5G and promised Americans that “no matter where you are, you will have access very quickly to 5G, and it’s going to be a different life.”
The substance of what the administration is doing, however, represents incremental progress at best. At worst, it could actually be detrimental.
The FCC announced two initiatives in April 2019 that administration officials said would facilitate the rollout of 5G networks in the United States. First, the administration announced that a large amount of additional high-frequency airwaves for cellular use will be auctioned in December 2019. But the industry had been expecting further spectrum auctions in the second half of 2019 since last year—so the announcement was old news. In addition, high-band spectrum is not the type of spectrum that will be most important for 5G rollout—mid-band spectrum is what is most needed. Regrettably, the administration has also wasted a year trying to create a “faster” “marketplace approach” to spectrum auctions in which licensees make essential public interest determinations rather than the FCC. A bill introduced by Rep. Doris Matsui, D-Calif., may offer a way through this particular morass.
Second, the administration proposed a $20 billion Rural Digital Opportunity Fund to expand broadband in rural America over the next decade. But it is not clear whether or how the initiative is different from the existing Connect America Fund (CAF) subsidy program, established in 2014 under the Obama administration, which has steadily put billions of dollars toward rural broadband projects. The program is paid for with funds from the 1996 Telecommunications Act’s Universal Service Fund (USF), which already provides subsidies for expanding access to communications services in poor and rural areas and is paid for through Americans’ phone bills. Curiously, a few weeks prior to the announcement of the rural broadband initiative, the Trump administration had proposed a new spending cap on the USF programs. It is unclear how a cap on the program and the new proposed fund may affect other programs funded from the USF.
It is not unusual for administrations to try new ways of doing things or to rebrand existing programs. But given the high stakes of a successful and secure 5G rollout, Congress needs to exercise appropriate oversight over the administration. Congress should add to its (admittedly heavy) oversight agenda a means to ensure that the Trump administration’s handling of spectrum auctions is efficient and in the public interest. It should also keep an eye trained on the budgeting and programming of the USF as well as the rollout of the new Rural Digital Opportunity Fund.
The focus on rural communities is key and is the piece most likely to be ignored over time because it costs money. Fiber optic networks are needed to support 5G deployment and those are plentiful in urban areas, but that is not the case in rural areas. As SDN Communications’ Mark Shlanta put it in a field hearing chaired by Sen. Thune in October 2018:
[I]f 5G were to ever in the long term extend into those rural markets, we must maintain … the “support aspects” of developing more fiber optics networks across the rural networks. The cost to deploy a rural network far exceed[s] the cost per mile, and the cost per customer, that is used to support an urban customer. So I would just make sure that the federal government doesn’t overlook the needs of rural as we deploy 5G across the urban environments and extend those into the neighboring rural environments. (Emphasis added.)
Shlanta’s use of the word “if” showcases the pessimism many in the industry feel about the prospect of actually extending 5G to rural areas in the United States.
Broadband is the backbone on which the new 5G network will depend. (The 5G small cell model brings broadband closer to the end user, which allows the use of higher frequency waves and a much more high-quality experience on wireless devices.) As such, a far more comprehensive overhaul of the universal service program that funds expanded broadband is needed. The American Enterprise Institute’s Daniel Lyons observed: “Congress makes lots of noise about the importance of providing broadband service to rural areas. But the place where it could help the most would be to replace the outdated surcharge-based universal service program with a more traditional program funded directly by an annual grant from the Treasury.” Members of Congress should speak more openly and bluntly about the need to supplement rural communities’ resources to access broadband and 5G. They should begin to float potential concrete solutions this year with a view toward real action next year.
Finally, Congress needs to exercise oversight over the president’s and the administration’s treatment of Huawei and companies like it. In May, the administration restricted exports to Huawei and 67 affiliated entities across 26 countries because those entities “pose a significant risk of involvement in activities contrary to the national security or foreign policy interests of the United States.” This move was consistent with the wide consensus among national security and technology experts that Huawei and companies like it pose a national security threat to the United States and its allies. Traditionally, threats to the United States’s national security are not considered to be bargaining chips in trade negotiations and, at the time of the sanctions decision, Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross insisted the move was separate from the administration’s trade discussions.
But the president has indicated he is open to compromising on the national security threat if doing so advances his trade goals. In late May, however, President Trump stated, “It’s possible that Huawei would be included in a trade deal…. If we made a deal, I can imagine Huawei being included in some form or some part of a trade deal.” In late June, as part of jump-starting new trade negotiations with China, the president announced that U.S. companies could resume some purchases from Huawei.
As a result, some members are beginning to recognize that Congress must make its own judgments, and take a longer view than Trump, on the Huawei issue in order to ensure that U.S. national security is actually protected. The bipartisan H.R. 3759, and its companion in the Senate S. 2118, suggest the beginnings of such an approach. Those bills—which are modeled on the section of the 2017 sanctions law designed to constrain the president’s ability to lift Russia sanctions—would prohibit the secretary of commerce from removing Huawei from the Commerce entity list until he submits a request for approval to Congress and Congress enacts a joint resolution of approval.
What More Should Congress Be Doing?
Obviously not all of the introduced bills described above will become law. In fact, most of them probably will not. But they provide insight into what members are most concerned about and also provide a way for outside groups to begin to understand and analyze potential solutions to the 5G challenge. Parts of bills may end up as amendments on must-pass bills, like the NDAA. Others could be adopted and implemented by the executive branch as administrative action.
In each of the issue areas discussed above, Congress could be doing more.
Having dispensed with the idea of a government-run network, Congress should instead encourage operators to share 5G infrastructure going forward. Currently, there is no coordination between firms like AT&T and Verizon, and crews arduously digging holes and laying fiber in American towns sometimes run into identical crews from competing companies doing the same thing. As my colleague Tom Wheeler pointed out, the idea of sharing infrastructure is not unprecedented in the United States and is already being pursued in other countries. Pursuing such a model in the United Statescould reduce the cost of network ownership by 30 percent, improve network quality, and reduce the cost of small cell deployment by 50 percent.
On the security of 5G, members should continue to leverage existing political support for resources for defense-related agencies to encourage innovation and development on 5G. They should exercise rigorous oversight of the administration’s handling of national security threats posed by companies like Huawei. But Congress should also recognize that none of these efforts will be enough to secure the 5G network. 5G is a distributed software model, rather than a hardware-based switching model, that presents new security challenges. The whole ecosystem—including the supply chains for the network as well as the devices that will use the network—needs to be adequately protected.
How the state and local regulatory lawsuits play out could have a significant impact on the time frame in which 5G is meaningfully rolled out in the United States. Competitors like China don’t face the complicated local legal and political landscapes that U.S. companies could face for years to come. Members of Congress who support both total local control and a rollout time frame that can compete with China’s rapid progress will need to consider how these two policy positions can be reconciled.
Regarding Russia’s efforts to undermine confidence in the safety of 5G, going forward, Congress should require the administration to issue clear, science-based guidance and information to forestall unsubstantiated foreign conspiracy theories taking hold. More generally, Congress should develop a whole-of-society strategy to increase citizens’ resilience to disinformation—as has been done effectively in some European countriesthrough programs like media literacy campaigns.
Ideally, Congress would be doing even more. If there was real political will in Congress to lead, Congress could set a framework for a multilateral project with the EU and Japan—and potentially also South Korea—to pursue a coordinated plan, including standards setting, harmonization of frequency allocations for 5G, as well as a manufacturing strategy to address security concerns. The United States should be using its sheer size to leverage the EU, Japan and South Korea to create a global spectrum community that can drive down the cost of equipment and align cost structures to create a viable alternative to China’s offerings on 5G.