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Ruling Brittania’s (radio)Waves

Blog

Ruling Brittania’s (radio)Waves

In recent weeks, Britons have taken to vandalizing and even attempting to burn down radio masts crucial to the functioning of British telecoms networks. The motive behind the attacks is a conspiracy theory that 5G causes COVID-19. The assailants are apparently not the brightest: British mobile network operator EE announced that most of its involved towers did not even carry any 5G equipment, meaning the attacks simply damaged the 2G, 3G, and 4G connectivity upon which emergency services and the British public depend.

The vandalism conjures up memories of an infamous scene in Monty Python and the Holy Grail, when an unruly mob approaches the seemingly noble and erudite Sir Bedevere with a woman they claim is a witch and causing plague in the village. The throng demands their scapegoat be burned at the stake. Initially, it appears Sir Bedevere will save the woman by explaining to the rabble that their conspiracy is as ill-founded as the one that has Britons burning radio masts. In the end, Sir Bedevere turns out to be just as ignorant when he deduces that the woman is indeed a nefarious necromancer — because she weighs as much as a duck.

This may seem a strange place to begin taking stock of last week’s important developments related to the United Kingdom’s 5G roll-out, but it is actually incredibly apt. Most cell-phone users know as much about how their phones work and how the roll-out of 5G will change the world as Monty Python’s witch-burning mob. The politicians who represent those cell-phone users are often little better than Sir Bedevere, armed with the trappings of knowledge but devoid of much beyond poorly-rationalized fears — and in search of a much-needed scapegoat for their problems.

Which, of course, makes China the witch in this metaphor, and a feisty one at that. Last Monday, Huawei’s Vice President Victor Zhang penned an open letter to the British government adamantly defending Huawei’s role in the UK’s 5G roll-out. Zhang insisted that Huawei was crucial to the British government’s COVID-19 response because it was “keeping Britain online” and dismissed Huawei’s opponents as mindless ideologues who were doing Britain a “disservice.” The letter did not go over well with anti-Huawei British Members of Parliament (MPs), who just last month narrowly failed to pass an amendment to a telecommunications bill that would have banned use of Huawei equipment in the UK.

Two days later, Ericsson announced that British Telecommunication PLC (BT) had officially signed a deal with the company to be its chosen vendor for building its 5G core network across Great Britain. (With a 28 percent of total market share in the UK, BT is the country’s largest mobile operator.) A few hours after the Ericsson announcement, an appreciably less enthusiastic BT announced that 100% of its core mobile traffic would be on new, Ericsson-built equipment by 2023, a three-year delay from its previous projection. BT blamed the delay on the British government’s January decision to confine “high-risk vendor access” to peripheral parts of the network (requiring firms to rip out Huawei gear from sensitive parts of existing 4G networks) and capping their market share at 35 percent. It is also worth noting that BT’s former chairman, Sir Michael Rake, agreed to join the board of Huawei Technologies UK last week as well.

Replacing Huawei is no small ordeal for British telecom operators. According to a 2019 telecoms supply chain review by the British government’s Department for Digital, Culture, Media & Sport, Huawei was already the market leader in 4G mobile access in the UK with an overall share of 35 percent and a whopping 44 percent market share in full fiber fixed access networks. It is doubtful the British government will be able to keep its promise of majority population 5G coverage by 2027 and nationwide full fiber coverage by 2033 as a result of its recent restrictions on Huawei — restrictions that could worsen due to increased U.S. pressure on Boris Johnson’s (or a future Prime Minister’s) government, or due to anti-Huawei renegade Tories dissatisfied with their leader’s ‘soft’ approach.

The political pressure to distance the UK from China seems in danger of outweighing the British government’s desire to roll-out its 5G network as quickly and cheaply as possible. British government officials recently leaked that the Johnson government was considering revising its previous position towards Huawei even as a government spokesperson insisted the government’s position “has not changed.” British Foreign Secretary Dominc Raab further fanned the flames with strident criticism of China’s covering up the initial threat posed by COVID-19.

There is more than a little bit of Monty Python mob mentality in the increasingly clamorous anti-Huawei chorus. The British government has drawn the ire of the United States on this particular issue not because it disagrees with the US on the potential threat posed by Huawei but because it does not agree vigorously enough with President Trump’s merry band of Sir Bedeveres. The UK’s Huawei Cyber Security Evaluation Centre’s annual 2019 report stated that it could only “provide limited assurance that all risks to UK national security from Huawei” could be “sufficiently mitigated,” with special emphasis on source code and a lack of material progress on previously identified security issues. The British government knows China is a threat. It judges the best way to protect British national security is to roll-out 5G as quickly and cheaply as possible while protecting the core of the network, which is evolving away from physical equipment toward software-based “network function virtualization infrastructure” (NFVI). (If that jargon makes your head hurt, here is an excellent, easy-to-read primer on what that means.)

As blame and suspicion continue to mount in the West over China’s behavior in the context of the COVID-19 global pandemic, the UK’s more nuanced approach to managing the potential threat posed by Huawei when it comes to 5G could become politically untenable at home, especially as the human and economic toll of COVID-19 becomes more severe. The UK may have to consider banning Huawei outright in the near future, which would mean further delays in its own 5G roll-out and more momentum in politically isolating China in the world. While extremely unlikely, the UK also has to begin imagining what the potential implications would be if the US intentionally distanced itself or tried to undermine the International Telecommunications Union (ITU) and 3GPP, the key international organizations that set standards for the global ecosystem of mobile telecommunications.

The overwhelming U.S. focus on China belies the real underlying problem when it comes to 5G vulnerabilities: the domination of the global telecoms infrastructure equipment market for network operators by Huawei, Ericsson, and Nokia. Sure, a country like Sweden (home of Ericsson) poses less of a geopolitical threat to the global order than China (though students of British history no doubt remember what happened to their island home in the eighth century when “a vehement manifestation of conquering energy appeared in Scandinavia”), but reliance on Ericsson only exacerbates the UK’s dependence on a single vendor.

Isolating China globally and successfully pressuring other countries to ban Huawei would delay 5G roll-outs in countries unwilling to do business with China without solving the problem of global over-dependence on three companies. It would reduce global competition for this equipment even further. And it would push China to use its prowess at scaling the deployment of digital infrastructure even more aggressively than it already is to cement political ties with strategically important countries. That, in turn, could create even more U.S.-China hostility and increase government attempts by both countries to pursue a more circumscribed and directly controllable sphere of influence at the explicit expense of the other.

In the long-term (i.e. 5-10 years), the US and UK may actually have an ace in the hole: the emergence of a so-called “open-architecture model,” or “Open RAN,” that could diminish not just Huawei’s, but Ericsson and Nokia’s comparative advantages in the marketplace. Recall the earlier discussion of NFVI. Think of that as a necessary step towards the realization of Open RAN. Virtualization in concrete terms means locating more of the processing of critically sensitive information in a 5G mobile network away from the equipment Ericsson, Huawei, and Nokia make. A virtualized and open radio access network architecture would mean that operators would no longer have to rely on a three-company proprietary telecoms equipment cartel to provide necessary telecoms equipment at all. A readily available open-architecture model for this equipment would make it possible for multiple vendors to compete in various parts of a network and for smaller enterprises to throw their hats in the ring as well. In that sense, Open RAN promises to level the playing field by increasing competition and reducing the bargaining power of the major players (and, in Huawei’s case, the government using it for strategic ends). It would also increase the importance of software and data-processing companies in the overall telecom ecosystem.

In other words: China’s position, while certainly advantageous to Beijing’s current geopolitical interests, is also inherently ephemeral. Just because China can reasonably be said to have “won” the race for 5G does not mean China’s “victory” is a permanent state of affairs — or is even that meaningful at this very early stage of 5G development. European countries rolled out 2G first; Japan won the 3G race, and the United States dominated 4G. Consider that a Congressional Research Service report concluded in 2014 that “because the United States is the leader in 4G LTE deployment, many believe that it will be able to maintain that leadership by moving quickly to 5G in 2025.” That is how fast these things change. Technology dominance is cyclical and dynamic, and just because China is further ahead of the pack when it comes to the initial phases of 5G roll-out than other countries does not mean a reflexive ban of Huawei solves the root problem.

Unfortunately, policy considerations around 5G in the UK are in danger of being driven less by a clear and sober understanding of threats and more by mobs attempting to burn radio masts to the ground. This short-sighted threat perception is being exacerbated by China’s dismal behavior in alerting the world about the initial dangers of COVID-19. China is a potential threat to the UK, but it is not the threat. While China is pigeon-holed into playing the role of the “witch,” and while political forces in the UK, the US, and other countries fearful of China’s position of 5G tech dominance are playing the role of the “mob,” the cure for the real plague — a global over-reliance on a small number of suppliers for telecoms equipment for which there is currently no alternative — is still a long way’s off.