Banning 5G Equipment is a Foolish Strategy

By Anthony Rutkowski

It has become popular today around Washington and the venues of its coerced allies to issue threats to ban telecommunications equipment from certain countries — especially equipment intended for 5G use. The guise is vague assertions of “national security.” It is an old tactic dating back to the turn of the last century and recurrent for decades. A combination of treaty instruments and collaborative industry standards activity several decades ago largely put an end to the banning tactic — significantly benefitting the entire world. Today, in a rapidly emerging world of 5G network communications, the banning tactic is profoundly foolish and certain to bring significant harm to the United States.

The Sordid History of Banning Communications Equipment

Stretching back to the turn of the last century, equipment bans were used by communication service providers and individual nations as an economic strategy to further their strategic interests in the marketplace — frequently under the guise of national security. Indeed, the existence of communication providers as national government agencies known as PTTs was prevalent throughout the world, and the PTT usually picked a domestic provider for its equipment. It gave rise to the mantra “if you can’t beat them, ban them,” and to recurrent telecommunication equipment trade wars over many decades.

Indeed, the very first intergovernmental treaty conference on radiocommunication in 1903, as well as the first one in which the U.S. government participated, occurred because of countries not only banning radio equipment but sanctioning the probation of intercommunication with disallowed radio sets. Countries propped up the interests of their domestic vendors. The resulting treaty instrument in 1906 helped put an end to the most egregious banning practice. However, the proclivity by nations to play the national security card to ban equipment remained perhaps the most prevalent practice in the ensuing history of global telecommunications commerce through much of the 20th century. It is a major factor threading through international communications law and cooperative activities in international organizations.

Through the 1970s and 80s, nations collectively realized that their interests were best served by creating global market opportunities around a combination of treaty provisions and technical standards in intergovernmental bodies like the ITU and WTO. A global, open “communication liberalization” paradigm emerged in the United States and swept across the world. Specific legal and technical provisions were created that went to security requirements that were verifiable and allowed global markets for equipment and services to emerge. This liberalization paradigm benefitted Western countries in opening up global markets and was arguably, very successful in a world seeking content and communications.

China, Korea, and Japan generally over the past twenty-five years excelled — especially on the equipment side. That was generally viewed as acceptable because countries like the U.S. excelled on the content and services creation side of the global trade equation.

The New World of 5G

The emergence of 5G begins a profound transformation in networks and communication services that go far beyond just high-speed local broadband access. It comprises a rapid transition to instant Network Functions Virtualisation (NFV) Software Defined Networks (SDN), new low latency and alternative IP protocol “slices” to create internets and MAC-NETs on demand, hardware commoditization, virtualized mobile, always-on services, content distribution architectures, and new endpoint discovery services — all run out of data centers. Countries like the U.S. were poised to do well under the prevailing global liberalization regime.

Unfortunately, a new U.S. Administration came into existence in 2017 that appeared to know nothing about the international telecommunication technology and marketplace but was intent on destroying the applicable existing global economic regimes and abrogating the nation’s treaty obligations. It was a whiplash shift in global regimes and strategy back to a protectionist era that existed more than a hundred years ago. The doctrine transformation was not only ignorant and foolhardy, but occurring at the worst possible time in the 5G transition — with potentially disastrous consequences for U.S. companies and interests.

The banning mantra has been joined by the newly minted 5G Washington Neocons who appear to see new technology as a threat to the United States simply because China vendors are involved and there are remotely plausible generic threats. Somewhat bizarrely, these old Cold Warriors see 5G’s ability to create network slices for low-latency Virtual Carrier Ethernet (FCE) itself as a threat to America’s military interests, sprinkling in popular phrases like the Internet of Things in passing.

What such scare tactics ignore is that the virtualization concepts and technology platforms have been collectively led by global ensembles of leading technology vendors and service providers in open industry venues — especially the NFV ISG and 3GPP — where some substantial, albeit insufficient, U.S. industry participation exists. Even low latency platforms like VCE have homes like the Los Angeles based MEF and being aggressively rolled out by U.S. switch vendors.

The ancient practice of equipment banning does not end well for practicing nations in the 5G world — for several critically significant reasons. In that 5G world, equipment becomes little more than cyber raw material roaming around the world, and it is the orchestration of virtual functions in the hardware from cloud data centers, as well as the instantiation of tailored global content delivery architectures and services, that become invaluable new cyber value-added assemblies in the global marketplace. Those capabilities are what is the principal outstanding competitive advantage of the U.S. That strategic advantage was understood well thirty years ago when it initiated the efforts to open up the global marketplace to network-based products and services. That understanding and knowledge-base are utterly lacking today in Washington.

Effective 5G security

In a 5G world — as in any network environment — security is an unending concern. It is a continuing evolving state mitigated by global agreement and diligence for: 1) industry standards-based hardware features and pre-deployment testing certifications, 2) standards-based virtual functions orchestrations that meet security and identity requirements imposed to achieve desired risk levels and compliance capabilities, 3) continuous monitoring and analysis of virtual function security states and traffic flow threat signatures at middleboxes and gateways, and 4) the fastest possible exchange of structured treat intelligence and instantiation of mitigations. 5G’s ability to create diverse network architectures and middleboxes on demand using network slices of alternative transport protocols, addresses, and end-point discovery, creates many new challenges what necessitate significant engagement and development of effective solutions among all the parties, public and private.

National banning of 5G hardware for alleged security purposes is the equivalent of watching the bone pounding scene in the opening of the motion picture classic “2001.” Such snake oil achieves basically nothing from a security standpoint, and the collateral adverse effects are significant. Nonsensical fear stoking of alleged security vulnerabilities from relationships between private sector companies and their national governments harkens back to a world that existed a century ago and ignores the reality that governments almost everywhere maintain collaborative security relationships — if for nothing else to further the needs of domestic markets and well-established worldwide lawful interception requirements.

The harms to the U.S. by banning include the credibility damage under long-standing treaty-based public international law, Balkanization of global provisioning and trade markets that will drive up the costs of infrastructures and vendors everywhere, and impeding or locking U.S. providers out of huge, rapidly growing foreign markets for innovative virtual function orchestrations and content distribution services. The adverse impacts on U.S. providers operating out of data centers will be particularly hard felt.

Perhaps most significantly, national banning creates the illusion of greater security, when instead, the needed resources for collaborative engagements in the global 5G industry venues and cooperative public-public and public-private security mechanisms are ignored. If any nation wants to purse 5G security enhancements credibly, they should look to those nations and private sector companies already engaging in 5G work and emulate their actions. Those actions include a rational understanding of the 5G ecosystem, combined with providing incentives for private sector and relevant government agency resources to participate in the enormous, fast-paced development of specifications and implementation of operational arrangements in 3GPP, the NFV ISG, OASIS, MEF, ETSI, GSMA, and the ITU. Anything less is a 5G Charade-as-a-Service — orchestrated in Washington.

Written by Anthony Rutkowski, Principal, Netmagic Associates LLC

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More under: Access Providers, Internet Governance, Policy & Regulation, Telecom, Wireless

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Posted on: February 10, 2019

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