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The Race Is On For Control Of 5G Wireless Communications — And China Is In The Lead


The race is on for control of 5G, the fifth generation of wireless communications. And we take a look in this month's All Tech Considered.


CORNISH: Now, if you were to look at a map of 5G networks worldwide, you'd see that one company appears to be winning this race. That company is Huawei, the Chinese telecom giant. And the Trump administration considers that a national security threat, so much so that Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is warning allies like the Philippines that there are risks to choosing Huawei.


MIKE POMPEO: The risks to the Philippine people, the risks to Philippine security, the risk that America may not be able to operate in certain environments if there is Huawei technology adjacent to that.

CORNISH: Now, to understand why the U.S. government is saying this and what it's actually doing about 5G, we've invited Harvard Law School professor Susan Crawford to the studio. Welcome to the program.

SUSAN CRAWFORD: Glad to be here.

CORNISH: First, help us understand why Huawei seems to have the competitive advantage.

CRAWFORD: Well, Huawei really is China. You can think of it that way. And China, through its Belt Road Initiative and its other industrial policies, is planning to connect most homes to fiber and advanced wireless. And also, more than 80 countries and 65 percent of the world's population is touched by the Belt Road Initiative, which will include fiber and advanced wireless. Huawei is a big part of that story.

And the risk from the American point of view is that if China can control or influence all of that, it means all the elements of the information services supply chain from data transport to what apps can be used, as Secretary Pompeo mentions, to the analytics and artificial intelligence apply to those apps for advertising and very targeted locational services, that will all be in China's hands.

CORNISH: Has the U.S. been successful so far in actually convincing allies to stay away?

CRAWFORD: It's a mixed bag. In fact, even today, the U.S. said to Germany, you better not let Huawei in or we won't share our signals intelligence with you, which is a major development. But so far, both the U.K. and Germany are resisting. Look. The fact is that Huawei gear is 20 to 30 percent cheaper because it's subsidized by the Chinese government. So choosing patriotism over profits is tough for any developed country.

CORNISH: We've told allies, please don't do this, but have we offered an alternative?

CRAWFORD: This seems to be a purely defensive initiative by the Trump administration. We don't have a story on our side except stay with us, we're the U.S. And increasingly, around the world, that's not accepted narrative.

CORNISH: We're talking about this in the context of a national security threat, but what about for an economic threat for the tech industry? Is this something they're up in arms about?

CRAWFORD: It's really both because China will have the ability to surveil absolutely everything going on for their own analytical and intelligence purposes. But it's also a huge economic threat because our wonderful Silicon Valley companies won't necessarily have access to these Chinese networks to sell their services. And that's - if you're touching 65 percent of the world's population, that's a tremendous hole that we won't be able to fill using just our own market.

CORNISH: I want to turn to domestic policy because President Trump has tweeted about the idea of the U.S. lagging. And he said, quote, "5G and even 6G technology in the United States as soon as possible." Let's set aside 6G, which is not real, what is the government doing to make 5G happen in the U.S.?

CRAWFORD: Well, the challenge here in the U.S. is that we're relying on private carriers to have the incentives from their private profits to develop what is basic infrastructure. And we know that's likely not going to happen. There's a real chicken-and-egg problem here. They're looking for immediate revenue streams that will cover the cost of deployment, and the costs of deployment is very high.

CORNISH: And we don't have a government who's going to lay all that groundwork for them.

CRAWFORD: Well, we used to be the country that did great things. We built a wonderful federal highway system, and we, you know, spanned the country with the railroads. Today, the Trump administration's approach to all this seems more like a backdoor to essentially privatize public assets while not necessarily spurring much private investment.

CORNISH: Bottom line, how concerned should we be about this conversation about 5G? Does this feel like a lot of hype?

CRAWFORD: Look. These networks are going to make possible eye contact, which means really human services over a distance in health care, in education, presence in business meetings without having to travel, all kinds of new ideas. And Paul Romer just won the Nobel Prize for saying these basic infrastructure moves are what make nations successful - so yes.

CORNISH: Susan Crawford is a professor at Harvard Law School and author of "Fiber: The Coming Tech Revolution - And Why America Might Miss It." Thanks for speaking with us.

CRAWFORD: Delighted to be here. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.