The United States government must take immediate action to advance its interests in 5G wireless development or else risk falling behind Chinese tech companies like Huawei and ZTE for generations to come, Attorney General William Barr and Federal Bureau of Investigations (FBI) Director Christopher Wray said Feb. 6.

The U.S. policy stance on 5G development and the framing of the Chinese government and network equipment makers as threats are not new developments, but the message from Barr and Wray aimed to inject urgency into the debate.

In a keynote speech at a Center for Strategic and International Studies event, Wray warned that the Chinese government is taking an “all-tools and all-sectors approach that demands on our end our own all-tools and all-sectors approach in response.”

He explained that the Chinese government is going after any intelligence that could give it a competitive advantage – from bulk personally identifiable information to proprietary tech documents.

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“The Chinese government is fighting a generational fight to surpass our country in economic and technological leadership but not through legitimate innovation,” Wray asserted. “Instead, they’ve shown that they’re willing to steal their way up the economic ladder.”

Barr said there are legitimate national security dangers to the growing dominance of Huawei and ZTE 5G networks. He called 5G communications the “central nervous system of the next generation of internet” that must be protected.

“From a national security standpoint, if the industrial internet becomes dependent on Chinese technology, China would have the ability to shut countries off from technologies and equipment upon which their consumers and industry depend,” the AG said. “The power the United States has today to use economic sanctions would pale by comparison to the unprecedented leverage we would be surrendering into the hands of China.”

That dominance, Barr warned, would not stop at 5G. Because 5G provides the backbone of emerging tech including artificial intelligence (AI), the internet of things (IoT), and quantum computing, China could become the key distributor of endless other technologies.

“Within the next five years, 5G global territory and application dominance will be determined,” Barr predicted. “The question is whether within this window, the U.S. and its allies can mount sufficient competition to Huawei to retain and capture enough market share to sustain the kind of long term and robust competitive position necessary to avoid surrendering dominance to China.”

On this point, Barr shared the top two priorities for the U.S. as it attempts to secure enduring leadership in the 5G marketplace. First, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) must deploy the C-band spectrum, he said. Eventually, the U.S. will need to build out 400,000 base stations to support a robust 5G communications system, but in the “next few months” awarding a C-band contract, or making the decision to incorporate L-band spectrum into the 5G picture, is imperative.

Second, the Federal government must decide who will be its 5G equipment supplier to compete against Huawei and ZTE. “We have to have a market-ready alternative today … You can’t afford to make a mistake. You need to know you are buying a reliable system that will perform,” Barr said.

Wray clarified that American tech efforts are not about undermining Chinese people or companies, and he asserted early on that U.S. concerns with Chinese tech stem solely from the Chinese government and Communist Party.

“Confronting this threat effectively does not mean we shouldn’t do business with the Chinese, does not mean we shouldn’t host Chinese visitors, does not mean we shouldn’t welcome Chinese students or coexist with China on the world stage,” Wray said. “But what it does mean is when China violates our criminal laws and well-established international norms, we are not going to tolerate it much less enable it. The Department of Justice and the FBI are going to hold people accountable for that and protect our nation’s innovation and ideas,” he affirmed.

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Katie Malone
Katie Malone
Katie Malone is a MeriTalk Staff Reporter covering the intersection of government and technology.