from the unintended-consequences dept
We’ve already noted extensively how the “race to fifth generation wireless (5G)” is kind of a dumb thing. While 5G is important in the way that faster, better networks are always important, the purported Earth-rattling benefits of the technology have been painfully over-hyped. And they’ve been painfully over-hyped largely for two reasons: one, mobile carriers want to give a kick to stalling cellphone sales numbers, and network hardware vendors like Cisco want to drive the adoption of new, more expensive, telecom hardware.
The “race to 5G” isn’t a race. And even if it were, our broadband maps are so intentionally terrible, we’d have no idea if and when we’d won it. Regardless, 5G has subsequently become a sort of magic pixie dust of tech policy conversations, justifying all manner of sometimes dubious policy. But the underlying desire to simply sell more kit has also infected the Trump administration’s protectionist attacks on companies like Huawei, which is based on about 40% actual cybersecurity concerns, and 60% lobbying efforts by US hardware vendors that don’t want to compete with cheaper Chinese hardware.
The Trump administration’s war on Chinese network manufacturers has not been subtle, even though evidence supporting wholesale spying allegations against companies like Huawei has been arguably lacking. This week rumblings emerged that the Trump administration would soon be accelerating this effort by potentially banning absolutely any Chinese-made hardware from being used in US 5G networks, at all:
“As the Journal noted, such a requirement would force European companies Nokia Corp. and Ericsson, which currently dominate the sales of equipment to U.S. wireless carriers, to move their operations out of China or potentially lose access to the American market. That could potentially have a bigger impact on the market than any deal to end the ongoing trade standoff, as it may permanently alter the global technology markets?though both Nokia and Ericsson have already started working on plans to pull out of China due to the Trump administration?s escalating trade war tariffs.”
There’s a few problems with this. One remains the fact that despite an 18 month investigation, nobody has been able to provide a shred of proof that Huawei spies on Americans wholesale, the very allegation that began this whole effort. Two, smaller US telecom carriers say such bans will have a profoundly negative impact on their ability to compete in the States, since cheaper Chinese gear helps them better manage the tight margins of deploying service to lower ROI areas:
“RWA?s members estimate it might cost from $800 million to $1 billion for them to replace all the potentially affected gear from their wireless networks?costs they believe the government is legally required to reimburse.”
Guess who’ll pay for that? Hint: not carriers or the government.
The other problem is the myopic focus on Chinese telecom equipment. If the concern genuinely is cybersecurity, what about the Chinese hardware that exists in everything from smart refrigerators to residential routers? This all contains a universe of Chinese-made hardware susceptible to supply chain attacks. And what about the vast universe of shitty, poorly-secured IOT Chinese hardware that Americans happily connect to their home and business networks every day? If cybersecurity, and not say protectionism, is the real motivator, why is the focus so narrowly tailored to just telecom equipment?
Another problem remains the US’ hypocrisy on this subject. The NSA, with BFF AT&T, have been busted repeatedly spying on everything and everyone. The statement being made here is obvious to anybody not infected by patriotic fervor: it’s OK to covertly spy on the world if you’re the United States, but the faintest allegation of China doing the same thing will result in a massive protectionist ban. The same kind of ban we’d be freaking out over were the shoe to be on the other foot.
Again, none of this is to say that China is an angel or that it doesn’t routinely engage in some terrible behavior. But the Trump administration’s “solution” to these problems is light on evidence, myopic to a fault, largely hypocritical, and fails to really address the bigger problems at hand if concern for cybersecurity is genuinely the driving motivator.