US Defence Department Sees Global Division Over 5G Standards

The US Department of Defence has laid out a stark picture of what it sees as a coming Cold War-style era of technological and economic conflict between the US and China hinging on competing 5G standards.

The new study by the DoD’s Defence Innovation Board highlights the US’ emphatic position on the dangers posed by Chinese networking equipment, which contrasts with the views of some of its allies, including the UK.

The study, The 5G Ecosystem: Risks and Opportunities for DoD, focuses on the military risks and benefits of emerging next-generation networks, outlining, for instance, how they promise to improve the way multiple systems are linked together, increase information-sharing in real-time and improve situational awareness.

But much of the report is taken up with a discussion of the US’ concerns with the proliferation of 5G equipment manufactured in China, from manufacturers including Huawei and ZTE.

Huawei’s Ken Hu at the Mobile Broadband Forum in London. Image credit: Huawei

Security risk

The DoD considers such equipment to pose an inherent security risk, and the US government has banned its use by government departments.

The US has also applied pressure to its allies, including the UK, to ban Chinese equipment, but the study accepts that “the United States is not a big enough market in wireless to prevent China’s 5G suppliers from continuing to increase market share globally”.

Government experts in other countries say it isn’t technically feasible for Chinese equipment to pose more of a spying risk than gear from other countries, with the UK, for instance, arguing that any such risk can be managed.

Huawei has repeatedly denied it poses a security risk, and recently sued the US government over its ban.

The DoD study, however, reiterates the US’ stance that the success of vendors such as Huawei creates “security risks for DoD operations overseas that rely on networks with Chinese components in the supply chain”.

The rise of such vendors, the DoD notes, is part of a broader picture in which four of the 10 largest internet firms are Chinese, compared with 2009, when “all of the top 10 Internet companies by revenue were American”.

Battle lines

In 5G, the DoD said it believes the global battle lines may come down to the battle between two standards, mmWave, which is set to be broadly adopted in the US, and sub-6, the leading standard in China and also likely to be widely used in the rest of the world.

The split, which has come about in part due to the US military’s own use of communications spectrum, poses strategic concerns in that it could further spur the adoption of Chinese equipment worldwide, while limiting the US to a “declining set of vendors”.

Meanwhile, “if the future 5G ecosystem adopted by most of the world is built on the sub-6 mid-band spectrum, the United States will also be faced with mmWave device interoperability challenges and sub-6 infrastructure security concerns”, the DoD warned.


It said that apart from the technical benefits of one standard or the other, US operators are betting on mmWave for one very practical reason – the fact that in the US, much of the spectrum required for sub-6 5G is reserved exclusively for the use of Federal agencies, and in particular the DoD itself.

“Because large swaths of the sub-6 bands in the United States are not available for civil/commercial use, US carriers and the FCC (which controls civil spectrum in the US) are betting on mmWave spectrum as the core domestic 5G approach,” the report states.

In 4G networks, by contrast, the US took the lead on standards that were also used worldwide.

The study recommends the DoD release some sub-6 spectrum – the 3.2-3.6 GHz range and the 4.8-5.0 GHz range – in order to foster sub-6 deployment in the US.

It’s unclear how this might happen, however, since most US carriers, with the exception of T-Mobile, are focused on developing mmWave 5G.

Matthew Broersma

Matt Broersma is a long standing tech freelance, who has worked for Ziff-Davis, ZDnet and other leading publications

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