Despite a lot of press in recent months about threats that China-based communications equipment maker Huawei may pose to the developing global 5G communications ecosystem because of the company’s close ties to the Chinese government, the U.S. is continuing to lead the world in 5G technology innovation, panelists at a Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) event said on July 10.

Panelists discussed both 5G technologies and nascent 5G service offerings, and particularly the need to employ software-defined networking (SDN) technologies as part of the infrastructure behind 5G services. They did not discount the impact of Huawei’s aim to become a worldwide 5G network leader,  but also said that’s not likely to pose a fatal problem as long as there are enough alternative suppliers of network infrastructure.

“We are misleading a lot of people that the U.S. is behind” in 5G tech innovation, said Thierry Maupile, executive vice president at Altiostar Networks. That innovation is happening “in the U.S.,” he said, adding, “the missing link in the U.S. supply chain is how do you create the end-to-end solution.”

Chris Boyer, assistant vice president of public policy at AT&T, said that 5G innovation is not necessarily “a geographical thing . . . the innovation is going to happen globally.”

But, he said, it’s wrong to discount the role of U.S. companies in 5G innovation. “That innovation is happening here,” Boyer said, while also pointing out, “Writing code – you don’t have to do that in the U.S.”  He continued, “A lot of the value proposition in 5G is in the applications that ride on top of it, and the devices that are connected to that.”

“It’s misleading to say we are behind on 5G,” said Travis Russell, director of cybersecurity at Oracle, because 5G network specifications developed thus far are based on Western technologies.  He also said that “true 5G” service does not yet exist, because 5G network specifications have not yet been completely formulated.

Going forward however, Boyer said the small number of communications equipment makers with worldwide reach may be a problem for operators searching for alternatives to firms like Huawei. “The current model is not sustainable . . . You only have three major suppliers,” he said.

The answer to that problem, he suggested, is employing more SDN technologies into 5G networks, which he said can “disrupt the existing model.”

“How do we incentivize innovation in software that sits on top of the network,” he asked. “That’s the question, not whether we build a new Huawei.”  He added, “Doing more with [SDN] helps to diversify the supply chain.”

“The biggest security concern we have,” Russell said, is “what happens when we have one supplier” five years from now. “We can’t be in the position where there is only one source of supply . . . That is the largest security concern that we have.”

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John Curran
John Curran
John Curran is MeriTalk's Managing Editor covering the intersection of government and technology.