Securing 5G: A Way Forward in the U.S. and China Security Competition

Fifth-generation (5G) networks are being deployed in the United States and globally and, one day, will replace many older, third- and fourth-generation cellular networks. 5G will provide much higher data rates and lower message latency than older cellular networks. 5G could also provide or support a variety of new applications, such as holographic communications, autonomous vehicles, and internet-of-things communications. However, security concerns have been raised about 5G networks built using Chinese equipment and 5G phones made by some Chinese companies. The United States is reliant on foreign suppliers for 5G infrastructure and key microchips that go into every 5G phone.

This report from Rand Corporation describes 5G security issues, the 5G supply chain, and the competitive landscape in 5G equipment and mobile device markets. It describes where U.S. and Chinese companies have technology or market advantages in the emerging 5G security competition between the United States and China. The report provides recommendations for securing U.S. 5G networks and mobile devices and those used by U.S. allies and foreign partner nations.

Research Questions

  1. What are security issues in fifth-generation (5G) networks, the 5G supply chain, and the competitive landscape in 5G equipment and mobile device markets?
  2. Where do U.S. and Chinese companies have technology or market advantages in the emerging 5G security competition between the United States and China?
  3. How can the United States, its allies, and its foreign partner nations secure their 5G networks and mobile devices in both the short and long terms?

Key Findings

  • The United States has a weak position in two 5G sectors: network infrastructure and microchip foundries — the very top and bottom of the 5G technology stack.
  • In between, in other 5G sectors — mobile devices, mobile device operating systems, and microchip design — the United States has a relative advantage over or is at parity with China.
  • Huawei, a Chinese company, supplies 5G networks to many foreign countries, which gives China a security advantage in those countries, enabling China to collect national security, intellectual property, and foreign policy secrets. However, because the United States blacklisted Huawei, the company has lost significant market share in the 5G mobile device market. In response, Huawei has introduced its own mobile device operating system into a market dominated by Apple and Google. Also because of the blacklisting, it has lost access to new U.S. chip design tools and the 5- and 7-nanometer foundry sectors.

Recommendations

  • The Federal Communications Commission should license additional midband spectrum and shared spectrum bands for 5G.
  • The Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency should monitor 5G supply chains and encourage trusted foreign vendors to adopt its supply chain risk management best practices.
  • The Bureau of Industry and Security should permit U.S. companies to sell chips to nonsanctioned Chinese phone makers, and, subject to approval by Congress, provide incentives for advanced microchip foundries in the United States.
  • The National Telecommunications and Information Administration should increase budget for the Institute for Telecommunication Sciences to evaluate 5G technical standards for spectrum sharing and network security.
  • The U.S. Patent and Trademark Office should link its patent database with a third-party database of technical standards, evaluate Chinese 5G patent quality, examine links between U.S. and Chinese 5G standard-essential patent (SEP) applications, provide alerts to the U.S. government if Chinese company–declared SEPs are approved by the 3rd Generation Partnership Project, and propose alternative patent application disclosure rules to Congress and the World Trade Organization.
  • The National Institute of Standards and Technology and the U.S. Department of Defense should continue and expand cybersecurity evaluations of 5G technical standards.
  • The National Science Foundation should sponsor research on 5G and other advanced wireless communication technologies and on advanced semiconductor fabrication methods and tools.
  • The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency should sponsor research on advanced semiconductor fabrication methods and tools and assist the U.S. Department of Commerce in evaluating progress of U.S. companies building 7-nanometer process foundries in the United States.

Daniel Gonzales, Julia Brackup, Spencer Pfeifer, Timothy M. Bonds

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