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Mobile Communications February 2019 Viewpoints

Technology Analyst: Michael Gold

National Security and Wireless Technology

Why is this topic significant?

US policy makers are facing important decisions about how to secure mobile and satellite-based communications, counter China's 5G strategy, and develop ultrasecret quantum-communications channels.

Description

A November 2018 report by United States Air Force experts in defending against electromagnetic threats raises a number of issues about national-security implications of 5G, satellite communications, and quantum communications. As the Internet of Things becomes part of critical infrastructure for both civil and military purposes, securing networks will become a priority. Defense organizations might have important roles in securing 5G-based emergency-communications networks against deliberate electromagnetic interference, not just cyberattacks. A lack of US manufacturing capability for building 5G equipment and hardening equipment to resist attacks represents a further vulnerability. China has policies in place to address some of these risks. Its government has advantageous abilities to coordinate supply chains and accelerate 5G deployments. Imaginably, a dual-use 5G network could extend beyond China's borders through the nation's Digital Silk Road initiative.

Quantum communications presents another set of issues that involve national security, wireless technology, and China. Unlike quantum computing, quantum communications now comprises a proven though immature portfolio of technologies, including fiber-optic and free-space-optical links that can mount on satellites. Generally, quantum communications protects the secrecy of messages more effectively than conventional communications does. Engineers and physicists in China achieved unique breakthroughs in quantum communications during recent years.

Implications

During January 2018, unnamed personnel leaked a memo that proposed a nationalized 5G network for the United States to secure wireless communications and advance US economic interests. Regulators and government officials quickly disavowed the proposal. The chief communications regulator, Ajit Pai, responded to the proposal by stating that "the market, not government, is best positioned to drive innovation and investment" in 5G.

But during March 2018, the US government blocked a potential takeover of US-based Qualcomm by the Singapore-based parent of Broadcom. A committee within the US Department of the Treasury that reviews foreign investments cited security risks of the merger, including the potential "for China to expand its influence on the 5G standard-setting process." Moreover, Qualcomm is also a sole source for classified communications-engineering services. The committee viewed Broadcom's financial and strategic plan as likely to erode funding for Qualcomm's "core R&D expenditures of national security concern." In this case, national-security policy prevailed over the principles of free-market economics.

Impacts/Disruptions

Considering the risks of deliberate wireless interference, the Air Force committee's report speculates that stakeholders could come to see electromagnetic spectrum "as a war fighting domain" whose management could require military reorganization. The authors express concern that the security-related aspects of spectrum management could "continue falling between the seams" of military organizations' responsibilities. One possibility mentioned would be to incorporate spectrum-management duties into a new organization—possibly, the Space Force that is a proposed new part of the US Air Force.

Quantum-communications capabilities in China have apparently surpassed those of other nations. No one knows how China's superiority in supersecret communications will affect future developments. Quantum communications using lasers can be wireless but (at least so far) not fully mobile. Nevertheless, mobile devices can gain improved communications security by means of partial solutions—quantum key distribution protocols, one of the technology domains that has seen much progress in China. That nation might sustain its advantage, or other nations might catch up. But the commercial value of intensely secret communications might be inadequate to stimulate the invisible hand of free markets. Other governments seem likely to work toward reaching parity with China's advanced technologies for communications security.

Scale of Impact

  • Low
  • Medium
  • High
The scale of impact for this topic is: High

Time of Impact

  • Now
  • 5 Years
  • 10 Years
  • 15 Years
The time of impact for this topic is: 5 Years to 15 Years

Opportunities in the following industry areas:

Cellular communications, spectrum management, government systems, insurance, optical communications, satellite communications, electromagnetics research, advanced research

Relevant to the following Explorer Technology Areas:

Advanced Forms of 4G

Why is this topic significant?

Evolved versions of fourth-generation mobile technologies will compete against 5G.

Description

About 80% of cellular-service-infrastructure owners worldwide have deployed 4G-LTE technology. About 45% of the LTE networks have at least some base stations that implement LTE-Advanced. This improved version of LTE enables increases in typical and peak download data rates, an increase in the number of customers that can connect to a single base station concurrently, and savings in the electrical power and spectrum necessary to transmit each bit. Advanced modulation and smart antennas make all of these benefits possible at once. Under ideal conditions, LTE-Advanced can support downloading at 1 Gbit/s. But design targets for 4G and 5G technologies alike specify a typical user-experienced data rate of 100 Mbit/s. The main motivation to invest in advanced forms of 4G seems to be to deliver satisfying data rates to many customers in a cell sector.

At least four services worldwide have reported deployments of LTE-Advanced Pro—a further modification of LTE that uses even smarter antennas to contribute to further capacity and data-rate improvements. In the case of Bite Latvija, one of the few service providers that have implemented LTE Advanced Pro, "the bulk of the upgrades have been deployed in the busiest areas," according to analysts at TeleGeography.

Possibly, some carriers use LTE-Advanced Pro without acknowledgment. The technology can combine multiple spectrum bands that include unlicensed frequencies (standards developers refer to as Licensed-Assisted Access, or LAA). A polite protocol avoids interference with Wi-Fi and other unlicensed radios. In a few locations, AT&T uses LTE plus LAA to deliver data rates reportedly as high as 1 Gbit/s. The company does not use the term LTE Advanced Pro. Rather, AT&T refers to any technology capable of a peak data rate above 400 Mbit/s as "5G Evolution." Competitors have criticized a logo that indicates "5G E" in the status bar on a number of AT&T customers' 4G smartphone screens. AT&T has a limited number of towers in service having actual 5G radios, but 5G smartphones currently remain unavailable worldwide.

Implications

Technologies that improve 4G over time are among the reasons analysts expect 5G deployments to occur only gradually. In comparison with 5G deployments, upgrades to LTE are less costly and avoid the near-term need to sell separate smartphones for 4G and 5G services. Even by 2025, LTE-Advanced and LTE-Advanced Pro could be more commonly available than 5G will be. In a September 2018 study sponsored by industry association 5G Americas, analysts at Ovum forecasted that in 2023, about 13% of active customer accounts would be for 5G services. Similarly, a November 2018 report from Ericsson forecasted a 5G market penetration of 17% in 2024.

Impacts/Disruptions

Other than data rates and throughput, advanced forms of LTE can deliver a number of additional 5G-like benefits. In theory, LTE Advanced Pro can cut network delays to merely 2 ms, comparable to what engineers expect 5G to deliver in support of wireless machine control, augmented reality, and vehicle-safety information. For example, an ambulance driver could see truly real-time images from intersection traffic cameras, and could drive at full speed through some intersections and slow down as required at others. Nevertheless, many benefits will be available only with 5G, including ultrareliable delivery of those traffic-camera images, as well as a road map for improving service in dense crowds.

Scale of Impact

  • Low
  • Medium
  • High
The scale of impact for this topic is: Medium to High

Time of Impact

  • Now
  • 5 Years
  • 10 Years
  • 15 Years
The time of impact for this topic is: Now to 5 Years

Opportunities in the following industry areas:

Mobile communications, network equipment, consumer electronics, semiconductors, antennas

Relevant to the following Explorer Technology Areas: