White House strategy paper to secure 5G envisions America leading global 5G development

Though light on details, the paper offers clues as to how the US government sees the development and security of 5G communications moving forward.

5G mobile wireless network technology / connections
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With curiously little fanfare, the White House released last week a six-page document called the National Strategy to Secure 5G, a blueprint that was mandated by the Secure 5G and Beyond Act. That bill, signed into law by President Trump on the same day, March 23, that the White House released its strategy paper, directed the president to release his strategy paper within 180 days of the bill's enactment.

The paper's stated goal is to articulate a vision "for America to lead the development, deployment and management of secure and reliable 5G communications infrastructure, worldwide, arm-in-arm with our closest partners and allies." The four "lines of effort" driving this vision include:

  • Facilitating the domestic roll-out of 5G
  • Assessing the security risks and core principles for infrastructure
  • Managing those economic and security risks
  • Promoting responsible global development and deployment of the 5G infrastructure

The domestic roll-out of 5G, coordinated by the National Economic Council, primarily lies with the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), which has what it calls its 5G FAST plan. FAST makes more radiofrequency spectrum available, streamlines government processes, and "modernizes" regulation to promote the deployment of 5G backhaul. The Commerce Department is also working on a National Spectrum Strategy to plan for future generations of wireless networks.

US government to work with private sector on 5G security

When it comes to assessing the risks and security of 5G, the "strategy" paper, which reads much more like a set of aspirational goals as opposed to a game plan for achieving government objectives, says the U.S. government will promote secure 5G infrastructure by regularly assessing the economic and national security risks to the infrastructure.  To that end, the government will work with the private sector to "identify, develop and apply core security principles — best practices in cybersecurity, supply chain risk management, and public safety — to United States 5G infrastructure." The goal would be to synchronize these principles with those endorsed by the US in the "Prague Proposals" from the Prague 5G Security Conference in May 2019.

When it comes to the third line of effort, managing those risks, the paper says the United States will identify or develop supply chain risk management standards, guidelines, and practices for executive agencies to use when assessing and mitigating supply chain risks as spelled out in the Federal Acquisition Supply Chain Security Act of 2018. The paper also points back to the Executive Order (E.O.) 13873, issued May 15, 2019, on "Securing the Information and Communications Technology and Services Supply Chain" to prohibit or unwind transactions involving "foreign adversaries" sale in the US of information and communications technology and services.

Finally, in terms of the fourth line of effort, promoting responsible global development and deployment of 5G, the paper says the US government wants to work with like-minded countries to lead the international development and deployment of 5G technologies. It is this last piece of the paper addressing global cooperation that may offer the most upside potential in any implementation of a new 5G strategy, John Watts, senior fellow in the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council says.

Watts, who has studied and written extensively about the global security ramifications of 5G technology, tells CSO that "Motorola and Nokia missed the move from 3G to 4G and Nokia ended up selling off, and also Motorola ended up selling off, their cellular businesses because they missed that jump." The upshot is that China's Huawei, currently considered the most significant supply chain threat to 5G technology, saw these disasters and said: "We've got to get 5G right."

"China recognized this about 2015, and they directed the tech champions like Huawei and ZTE to go and start researching, getting on the front foot of this,” says Watts. “They saw this as an opportunity to jump in and shift the balance of economic power. So, we are behind."

Not only is it important for international companies to pull together in the face of potential technological obsolescence, but the US operates on a global footprint. "The US military is operating in Germany, it's operating in Korea, it's operating in Japan, in the Philippines or Sudan or Southern Lebanon and they've all got Huawei equipment and then there's a security risk."

Software the best chance for the US to secure 5G

But the US can't, in the words of two leading Rand Corporation analysts, "out-China" China and compete against Huawei and other companies in the development of the physical infrastructure and hardware. Where there is hope, according to Watts, is in the US arena of competitive advantage: software, particularly in approaches that involve multiple software vendors within a single network. That also has the benefit of making the supply chain more resilient.

The best chance for U.S. success is to collaborate in creating robust software alternatives on a global scale with likeminded partners in countries around the globe in countries with advanced 5G capabilities such as Sweden, Finland and South Korea, Watts contends. "China is building a better internal combustion engine car. We need to build a Tesla, which is better in different ways," Watts says.

Legislative proposals the next step

The next step in implementing the White House's 5G security strategy is to develop legislative proposals that move the US toward the outlined goals. But the coronavirus crisis has turned Capitol Hill on its head. The lawmakers behind the Secure 5G and Beyond Act are currently mum on what the next legislative implementation steps might be.

It's also quite possible that the paper is merely an empty "box-ticking" exercise that the White House knew it had to complete as a result of the Secure 5G bill. Still, the paper is congruent with a lot of other actions and executive orders the administration has undertaken, Watts says.

One intriguing idea is to marry the administration's desire for a secure 5G network with the need to jumpstart the economy after the immediate crisis of the COVID-19 pandemic subsides. "There's talk at the moment of an infrastructure builder to get the economy back on track," Watts says. "It would be a good option if the government said, 'Let's jumpstart the economy by rolling out 5G to the rural systems.' And they throw money behind it as part of the two trillion dollars that is sitting out there already. I think we could bounce back really quickly, and we could accelerate up to compete against China soon.”

Copyright © 2020 IDG Communications, Inc.

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