OPINION: China’s Imminent Takeover Of High-Speed Cellular Communication

Clare M. Lopez | Vice President for Research & Analysis, Center for Security Policy

In the continuous flood of media coverage touting the wonders of the coming 5G cellular communications system, some critical issues involving U.S. national security are too often overlooked.

China is one of the most dominant players in the international cellular and telecommunications industry today, even as that industry is seeking control over ever more of the already assigned and as-yet unassigned frequencies on the electromagnetic spectrum (EMS), in large measure to support the coming massive demand to support 5G. Because of its dominant role, China is able to influence and even drive policy decisions about the EMS. That requires that we look very closely at Beijing’s motivations regarding spectrum policy.

Companies involved in developing the 5G system have been asking for larger swathes of the spectrum and some governments have been very willing to allow the deep-pocketed industry and its powerful associations to drive policy on these issues without sufficient regard to the impact on key national infrastructure — for example, when it comes to the so-called “Ka band” portion of the electromagnetic spectrum.

The Ka band is especially important because it was allocated, in part, to the satellite communications industry, which provides critical services to U.S. airlines, businesses, consumers and government clients worldwide.

For over 20 years, the U.S. government in partnership with global satellite operators, has invested enormously in that sliver of the spectrum available for satellite broadband because it ensures connectivity for private cellphone users but also for the U.S. military and the warfighter on the ground anywhere in the world. Now, Chinese state level actors are increasingly insistent on being given access specifically to the Ka band, ostensibly to support 5G technology — although lots of other spectrum is available for that purpose. Given what we know of Beijing’s geopolitical drive for dominance of emerging technologies like 5G in the context of its openly-articulated intent to overcome the U.S.’ superpower status, this should ring alarm bells.

The International Telecommunication Union (ITU) is a specialized agency of the United Nations that, among other things, coordinates the shared global use of the international radio-frequency spectrum and satellite orbit resources. The ITU is led by a secretary-general, who is elected for a four-year term. Houlin Zhao of China was elected Oct. 23, 2014, with a mandate that began Jan. 1, 2015, and was re-elected for another four-year term at the 2018 Plenipotentiary Conference in Dubai.

The Groupe Speciale Mobile Association (GSMA) or Global System for Mobile Communications is a trade body that represents the interests of cellphone network operators worldwide. GSMA represents the mobile industry to governments and institutions where it advocates policy and regulatory positions on behalf of its members. China is well-represented among GSMA’s leadership executives, with three executive vice presidents of China Mobile Communications Corporation, China Telecom and China Unicom respectively among its 2019-2020 board as well as senior adviser Dr. Wang Jianzhou, who is the former executive chairman of China Mobile and current chairman of the Advisory Committee for Strategic Development of China Mobile.

In the “private sector,” both Huawei Technologies Co., Ltd., and ZTE Corp. are leading Chinese telecommunications firms that not only play a leading role in such international industry associations and standards bodies but are backed by powerful state actors in the Chinese government. They are part of the leading edge of a Chinese national strategy that is driving consumer electronics and mobile telephone manufacturing worldwide.

Even where U.S. and European firms may own the core technology, China has been driving new standards to suit its long-term dominance of the communications world. Other players in this industry market understand all of this as well as their mission to maximize shareholder value, but because they are so closely tied to the Chinese government by way of multiple joint ventures and coerced technology transfers that were demanded in return for allowing them to participate in the low-cost Chinese labor manufacturing market, they are vulnerable now to Chinese pressure on myriad issues related to the 5G industry — like EMS allocations.

Speaking of Huawei this week, the headlines are all about the Dec. 1 detention in Canada at the request of the U.S. of Meng Wanzhou, the company’s CFO and the daughter of its founder. At issue is Huawei’s alleged violation of U.S. sanctions on Iran through sale of equipment to Iran by way of a Hong Kong cut-out firm called SkyCom between 2009-2014. A decision on Meng’s possible extradition to the U.S. is pending.

Of course, behind the headlines are long-term concerns by Western intelligence agencies that Huawei — and to a lesser extent, ZTE — pose significant threats to global security. It is widely suspected that Huawei equipment, which includes base stations, antennas, cellular tower equipment and, of course, smartphones, could include software or “back doors” that would allow the Chinese to tap into sensitive information of Western companies and government agencies, compromise or disable critical communications, or conduct other kinds of cyberattack against internet-connected devices or 5G network equipment.

Although the roll-out of new 5G wireless networks around the world will take some time, the all-encompassing linked nature of the new capabilities must give pause to those who will decide spectrum access.

Thankfully, the U.S. government has control of who gets access to which frequencies. It is imperative that the Trump administration, and specifically the Federal Communications Commission (FCC, which administers spectrum for non-federal use) and the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA, an operating unit of the Department of Commerce, which administers spectrum for Federal use, including the intelligence community and U.S. military), give careful consideration to pending decisions on allocation of mission critical segments of the spectrum used by the world’s leading satellite systems.

It is crucial that the most critical part of the Ka band be preserved for global satellite use and the mission it was created for: broadband communication across the globe and the always-important and growing national defense and security role that those satellites support worldwide.

That satellite network is critical and irreplaceable, and it must not be put at risk by allowing hostile actors to gain the ability to threaten some of our best and most critical communications capabilities.

Clare M. Lopez is the vice president for research and analysis at the Center for Security Policy. She formerly served as a CIA operations officer, domestically and abroad, for 20 years.


The views and opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of The Daily Caller.

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