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By Phil McCausland
President Donald Trump on Thursday brought renewed national attention to what has emerged as one of the most hotly debated technological and geopolitical challenges — the race to build a next-generation 5G wireless internet network.
The president used his Twitter account to broadcast the need for American companies to “step up their efforts” in establishing the 5G network “or get left behind.” 5G wireless networks are expected to offer superior connectivity and data speeds, paving the way for advanced technologies such as self-driving cars.
Trump also encouraged the development of 6G technology, which would conceivably offer even greater technological capabilities but remains almost entirely theoretical.
Trump’s tweets came just hours after CBS published an interview with Ren Zhengfei, the CEO of Chinese telecom firm Huawei, who said that his company was already in the process of rolling out 5G technology and would “soon” introduce 6G technology.
Huawei has become the focus of concerns that the United States is falling behind in the development of advanced wireless technology. The U.S. is ceding ground to the Chinese firm abroad as well as domestically, where Huawei already powers at least 25 percent of the carrier member networks of the Rural Wireless Association, according to a Federal Communications Commission filing in December.
I want 5G, and even 6G, technology in the United States as soon as possible. It is far more powerful, faster, and smarter than the current standard. American companies must step up their efforts, or get left behind. There is no reason that we should be lagging behind on………
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) February 21, 2019
….something that is so obviously the future. I want the United States to win through competition, not by blocking out currently more advanced technologies. We must always be the leader in everything we do, especially when it comes to the very exciting world of technology!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) February 21, 2019
While major U.S. telecommunications companies have touted their investments in 5G technology, China’s firms are by some measures a step ahead, causing concern that the U.S. could fall behind in building new technology off the next-generation networks.
“The implication is that new industries of the future, the new ways of making a living, will be in China and not here. They’ll have this huge sandbox to play with and a lot of control over the market,” said Susan Crawford, author of “Fiber: The Coming Tech Revolution — and Why America Might Miss It” and a professor at Harvard Law School focusing on technology policy.
By some measurements, China is outpacing the U.S. in wireless infrastructure development, with a 2018 report from accounting company Deloitte detailing the breakneck rate at which the country’s wireless firms are building new cell towers.
“Infrastructure spend and tower density distinguish China’s leap forward and highlight the degree to which China outpaces the United States during these early stages of 5G deployment,” Deloitte wrote in the report. “China is building network site density at an unprecedented rate.”
Trump’s tweet is complicated by his administration’s move to charge Huawei last month with money laundering, bank fraud, wire fraud, conspiracy and conspiracy to obstruct justice, as well as the arrest in Canada of Huawei’s chief financial officer, Meng Wanzhou, who is also Zhengfei’s daughter.
Trump also signed a law that blocks federal government agencies from using Huawei’s products after six U.S. intelligence agencies warned Americans to avoid purchasing its smartphones. The company is the world’s second largest supplier of mobile devices.
The FCC is anticipated to soon pursue an outright ban on Huawei technology in the U.S. due to national security concerns.
But Huawei’s founder told CBS that the company had never shared information with the Chinese government and would not give up its efforts to broaden its market appeal in the U.S.
Other administration officials, however, also expressed their distrust of Huawei on Thursday.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said during an interview on Fox Business Network that the U.S. would not partner or share information with any countries that used Huawei’s communications technology, stating that the administration would not “put American information at risk.”
“If a country adopts this and puts it in some of their critical information systems,” Pompeo said, referring to Huawei’s technology, “we won’t be able to share information with them. We won’t be able to work alongside them.”
Pompeo said that it could affect where American embassies and military outposts are located.
While the U.S., Australia and New Zealand have banned Huawei’s 5G equipment, traditional American allies such as Canada, the United Kingdom, Germany, France and Japan are considering using the company’s technology as they establish their own 5G networks, according to information compiled by Bloomberg.
Former FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler, who wrote an op-ed about the threat of Huawei on Wednesday, said a major issue is that China’s 5G head start could cause the U.S. to lose the technological influence campaign over its close allies.
The tense relationship that the Trump administration has developed with traditional American allies may also prove to be a roadblock in that campaign.
“It’s amazing how poking your allies in the eye has a way of splashing back on you,” said Wheeler, who emphasized that a ban of Huawei in the U.S. would not be fully effective.
“It’s not enough and let’s not let them break their arm patting themselves on the back. There are bigger issues that need to be raised about cybersecurity,” he said. “We have seen how malicious state actors have used our non-Huawei equipment to attack American assets. We need to think beyond the infrastructure to anticipate how we are going to deal with this.”
Though the debate on the world stage might be the loudest, the dispute over Huawei and 5G can be felt in small communities in the U.S., as well.
Major telecom companies that tend to serve urban communities have supported the ban of Huawei’s technology as they develop their own equipment for rollout. Smaller mobile carriers, however, note a need for the Chinese firm’s cheap technology to remain competitive and be able to afford to serve their rural customers.
“There’s a lot of peeling of the onion here, but the FCC considering banning Huawei equipment will negatively impact the small carriers that don’t have the financial reach that the major carriers have,” said Gigi Sohn, a distinguished fellow at the Georgetown Law Institute for Technology Law & Policy.
“The sad part of this whole conversation is we’re talking about these fancy technologies that will benefit the haves, while the have-nots will continue to be left behind,” she added.
Phil McCausland is an NBC News reporter focused on the rural-urban divide.