US Perception of the 5G Revolution

Admiral Dennis C Blair, Former Director of National Intelligence, US, addressed the Synergia Conclave-2019 through video on guidelines for building and deployment of the revolutionary 5G technology.

Background

As the global race to develop and deploy 5G telecommunications networks heats up, the urgency for investment in digital infrastructure is rising in tandem. The first country to achieve large-scale, reliable 5G coverage stands to reap significant economic gains—starting with higher technological innovation, elevated economic growth, and strengthened national competitiveness. The returns will be far larger than upfront investments. 

5G is the next big thing in ICT networks. It will provide the infrastructure for the Internet of Things, for smarter and more automated factories, for autonomous vehicles. For applications, most of us can barely imagine when clouds and artificial intelligence systems mature further.  

There are huge economic payoffs of this technology which will be shared by all countries. From a financial point of view, it is estimated that 5G will add $500B to the American GDP, along with 3 million jobs. The economic impact in other countries such as India will also be significant. 

The implications for India will be very different from that of US. India, which has gained vast experience in the deployment of 3G and 4G, is still to spread these technologies to its entire population. However, it has large urban areas which are well placed to absorb this technology and with its software industry, it can contribute to the formulation of international regulations to guide the roll-out of 5G.

Analysis

While the Huawei controversy has dogged the 5G rollout in US, the issue is much larger. Going beyond the Huawei controversy, Admiral Blair illustrated the three interlinked challenges all countries will face as they build their national 5G policies.

First is the economic challenge, as the costs involved in the ecosystem are huge. Should this be allowed to be cornered by foreign companies leaving their own domestic companies out in the cold? Foreign companies supported by their government do not expound fair competition. Although most countries will purchase some of their 5G equipment from foreign companies, they should structure the domestic 5G market so that their own companies can compete for business to the extent they are capable and competitive. Countries should not allow first-moving foreign companies, especially those subsidized by their own governments, to lock in a dominant position, giving them monopoly power to raise prices and to choke domestic competition.

The second challenge is that of security when the infrastructure is foreign-built. Are there imbedded systems which will endanger the privacy of private individual and state agencies? Both to protect the privacy of their citizens and to safeguard national security; countries cannot allow foreign equipment on 5G networks to be exploitable by their adversaries.

The third important issue is ensuring the quality and reliability of the ecosystem. If software and hardware are designed and built overseas, how will the end-users monitor their quality and reliability? Is it secure from opportunistic hackers? Once systems switch to 5G, there is no longer the option to change to old-world technologies if there are disruptions in 5G. Thus, the technology must be tamper-proof and domestic companies should be able to handle any disruptions.  

Discussions of 5G deployment in the United States and the dangers of Huawei have tended to merge these issues and promoted the notion that if Huawei equipment is excluded from US wireless networks, they will be reliable, secure and economically beneficial. It would be best to address the issues individually. Excluding Huawei from a domestic market will not in and of itself ensure an affordable, reliable and secure 5G system.

The single most important step that India can take to address all three issues is to participate in international bodies that are setting the network standards for 5G and to push for open standards. Remember that the international setting of standards is not a government-driven process. The main standards body is 3GPP or “Third Generation Partnership Project.” Hundreds of companies and organizations participate in 3GPP to vet contributions and develop standards.

Indian companies need to be present, active and supporting the evolving software-centric open design model. In 2017, for example, over 50 of the largest network and cloud operators, including from China, formed the Open Network Automation Platform (ONAP) project. If it succeeds, the open network hardware will consist of standardized and commoditized white boxes. The network function capability will be largely implemented in separate independent software running on the white boxes.

If both ONAP succeeds, then no longer will a single provider such as Nokia, Ericson, Samsung or Huawei deliver integrated, proprietary wireless systems to wireless providers. Instead, the providers will be able to procure components for both the core and the Radio Access Network of their 5G systems from different hardware and software providers, depending on their requirements and pricing and quality.  

In other words, the open architecture initiatives will provide an opportunity for wireless providers to maintain the competition as 5G networks are both installed and upgraded and expanded. This will keep prices lower and will provide more opportunities for domestic companies to compete. Open standards will also help with the issues of security and equipment reliability. However, different measures are required to meet these challenges, this time involving government participation.

For both security and privacy reasons, the Indian government should look closely at the susceptibility of foreign wireless equipment providers to exploitation by their home governments. This judgement needs to be made by government national security agencies, based on their best information from defence, diplomatic, economic and security departments. Foreign companies that are susceptible to home government pressures should be proscribed from deploying equipment into the core sections of networks. Huawei, in its current configuration, if not a tool of the Chinese government, is certainly a willing partner. It needs to make structural changes in its governance and activities if it is to gain the confidence of other countries.

As broadband access becomes more pervasive, it makes sense to augment the intelligence of local computing devices by connecting them with computing power and data repositories “in the cloud.” Access to cloud-based resources provides benefits to both businesses and consumers and has become an important driver of mobile data traffic. According to Cisco, cloud-based applications are already responsible for more than 80 per cent of mobile data traffic and are expected to account for 90 per cent by 2019.

Finally, 5G networks will become so important to the health, safety, and welfare of citizens, that there must be confidence in the reliability and security of the hardware and software systems in both the network components and the applications that ride on them. Experts in US marvel that India is able to work through massive electrical power outages of several days, because companies and homes have generators, and many activities powered by electricity are optional, even if their absence is costly and uncomfortable.  

However, to lose portions of a 5G network controlling personal health devices and autonomous vehicles will be a humanitarian disaster. There are no backup systems, and the health and life consequences are dire.

The United States, India, and other countries must set up public/private bodies to certify new hardware and software both for 5G network equipment and applications. The only organization which can act as a model is the UK’s “Huawei Cyber Security Evaluation Centre” or HSCSEC. This group of technical experts was established to verify Huawei software, but an organization like this is needed in every country to evaluate all equipment on wireless networks

Assessment

  • Rapid and large-scale deployment of 5G would not only help countries maintain its economic and technological edge globally, but it would also offer an opportunity to realize its other national objectives. 
  • It would support the transition of the economy to the Fourth Industrial Revolution ushered in by dramatic technology innovations. 
  • It would promote a stronger, more innovative, and more competitive business landscape, which in turn would support sustainable and high-paying jobs. 
  • It would provide increased access, benefiting both local communities and the private sector in under-served areas.
  • 5G will not represent a smooth, evolutionary improvement over the current standard, but will involve significant discontinuities from the earlier generations of wireless technology. 
  • This shift will likely confront policymakers both domestically and internationally with a number of novel legal and regulatory issues that will have to be resolved if the technology is to realise its full potential.
  • It is important for the Government of India, in partnership with the major telecoms and hardware and software vendors, to make the right decisions now on the implementation of 5G. 5G is too important to allow a single player to dominate it. We need to build the ecosystem by multiple agencies with a large domestic footprint.
  • To end up with a resilient 5G ecosystem, India has to deliberately go from step to step, rope in academicians, industry captains and most important the user to form a regulation and guidelines which enable a smooth rollout.

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