5G - a real security risk?
21 June 2019
Countries and trading blocs have a long history of using regulations to ensure that all products, including imported goods, meet consistent expected standards. In the 1970s, the UL94 standard on polymer flammability was initially seen - outside the US - as a form of import control. Goods made of non-compliant polymers would simply be left on the quayside.
Half a century on, and particularly following disasters such as Grenfell, no-one would seriously suggest that flammability standards should not form a crucial part of our defence against shoddy and sharp practices, against designing on the cheap.
Fast forward to the issue of 5G and the perceived security risk from using Chinese Huawei technology - is the risk real, or just another form of import control? An article in Wired (*), suggests that underpinning the US dislike of Chinese 5G technology may not be not the fear of security breaches, but the fear of its own approach to 5G being left behind.
5G has 100 times the speed as current generation wireless networks and reduced latency, so we can use wireless data to enhance our interactions with the world around us and create new opportunities in manufacturing, transportation, health care, education, and agriculture.
However, the United States is making choices that will leave rural communities behind. The key is the spectrum. The traditional band for wireless service is between 600MHz and 3GHz. This can cover wide areas but requires little power to do so - attractive for service in rural areas. Most of the world - including China - is building 5G networks with mid-band spectrum.
However, the United States is alone in making high-band spectrum the core of its domestic 5G approach. These airwaves, known as “millimetre wave,” are above 24GHz. They have never been used in cellular networks before - they don’t send signals very far and are easily blocked by walls. While these airwaves offer a lot more capacity, which translates into ultrafast speeds, it is very expensive to expand the network. But to date, the US has made zero mid-band spectrum available.
The US is set to miss all the benefits of scale and face higher costs and interoperability challenges, while other nations’ technologies proliferate. Is this the real reason behind the US' concerns with Huawei?
This leaves the UK with a headache. Does it go with global trends, or bend the knee to the country which its Government so fervently wishes to court in post-Brexit alignment?
To date, the UK has shown no concerns about using Chinese technology in security-critical equipment: Deborah Haynes, Sky News foreign affairs editor, notes that a complex web of supply chains supports Britain's biggest defence procurements, such as its warships, satellites and missiles. Exception PCB in Gloucestershire – owned by Chinese Shenzhen Fastprint - is making circuit boards for the top-secret F-35 warplane flown by Britain and the United States.
Was the ownership of Exception an oversight? Or had knowledge of the acquisition not been relayed to ministers? Or was it simply not considered to be a concern? The Ministry of Defence would surely have carried out a thorough check of Shenzhen Fastprint before it was able to take over a British company with an F-35 contract. Wouldn't it?
Are there other sub-contractors to the big defence primes - like BAE Systems, Thales, General Electric or Airbus - that are similarly under Chinese ownership?
Perhaps it does not need to be challenged. Perhaps there is no risk. Watch this space for multiple U-turns....
Andy Pye Consulting Editor
(*) CHOOSING THE WRONG LANE IN THE RACE TO 5G https://www.wired.com/story/choosing-the-wrong-lane-in-the-race-to-5g/