A digital revolution is upon us. 5G, the cutting-edge cellular network standard, promises to reshape our digital world with lightning-fast speed, seamless smart cities, and unprecedented support for autonomous technologies. But behind the allure of progress lies a dark reality—the looming threat of cyber warfare fueled by great power competition.
Recent events have thrust the U.S. intelligence community into action as Chinese hackers deploy sophisticated malware targeting American military operations. This raises urgent concerns about national cybersecurity and telecommunications resilience. As the Biden Administration confronts this escalating digital threat, one name raises red flags—Huawei, the 5G titan with ties to the Chinese Communist Party.
Fears of espionage and intellectual property theft have cast a shadow over Huawei's dominance, forcing Congress to ban the company from operating in the United States since 2017. However, Huawei continues to tighten its grip over the global telecommunications market as Congress remains in gridlock over 5G spectrum allocation, which puts the US in a tight position to compete globally. In addition, Huawei has sold telecommunications equipment to authoritarian regimes violating U.S. sanctions.
This isn't just about Huawei; it's about our core industries, weapons systems, and national security. The scarcity of proper 5G spectrum for the U.S. telecommunications industry presents a significant geopolitical challenge with far-reaching implications. As the digital landscape becomes the new battleground for global supremacy, the lack of American leadership in setting communication equipment standards leaves us vulnerable to such cyber attacks and highlights the urgency of reasserting control over our digital future. According to the latest Center for Strategic and International Studies report, the United States is grappling with a pressing deficiency of vital mid-band licensed spectrum, the bread and butter for 5G technology. Projections indicate a significant deficit of 400 MHz by 2027 and a staggering 1400 MHz by 2032. In stark contrast, China has assigned more than 70 percent additional licensed mid-band spectrum for 5G compared to the United States. This discrepancy presents China with a distinct competitive edge, creating a strategic advantage in sectors crucial for America’s forthcoming technology leadership and, consequently, its security interests.
While Congress has been known for its inaction on several fronts—such as passing a comprehensive consumer privacy and security framework—it cannot afford to delay addressing the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) relicensing issue any longer. Congress wields the authority to determine how much spectrum FCC can auction off to wireless providers by giving the agency auctioning authority. In March, however, for the first time in the last thirty years, Congress failed to extend the FCC’s spectrum auction authority, a critical mechanism for expanding commercial spectrum access. This legislative oversight directly undermines our ability to lead in developing cutting-edge wireless technologies, leaving us shackled by an inability to fully harness the potential of the digital age.
By limiting spectrum availability for commercial use in the age of 5G rapid growth, we reduce the capacity and speed of our networks, making them less efficient and more vulnerable to cyberattacks from adversaries such as China. This vulnerability could lead to a disruption of critical infrastructure, such as our energy grid or financial systems, causing harm to our national security and economy.
5G technology is poised to revolutionize industries, from healthcare to manufacturing, and to drive innovations like autonomous vehicles and the Internet of Things (IoT). Countries that establish dominance in 5G infrastructure and services will be in a prime position to shape global standards and reap substantial economic benefits. Without a robust allocation of the 5G spectrum, the United States risks falling behind in technological leadership, ceding ground to competitors and affecting its ability to influence the direction of the digital economy.
One area in particular where the United States risks falling behind is AI technology. The impact of 5G technology on generative AI is significant. Generative AI focuses on creating original content like images and text. It has revolutionized entire industries. 5G’s superpower shines through its ability to make data exchange and processing faster, eliminating delays that have slowed progress. This speed is crucial for generative AI, which relies on working quickly with immense amounts of data. But there are challenges. Generative AI deals with sensitive information, raising the risk of data breaches. To make the most of 5G for generative AI and keep data safe, strong security for 5G networks is a must. Telecommunication companies such as AT&T have been at the forefront of both AI advancements and developments in wireless network capabilities for decades, and they need a reliable share of the spectrum for commercial use to continue their investments in new technologies to compete in the global market.
Moreover, the availability of the 5G spectrum directly influences a nation’s economic competitiveness. As industries increasingly rely on fast, reliable connectivity, countries with advanced 5G networks will be better positioned to attract investments, foster innovation, and drive economic growth. Without reestablishing control over the digital spectrum, the United States risks ceding its position as a global technology leader and allowing foreign entities to set the standards and shape the future of communication equipment.
Tahmineh Dehbozorgi is a political analyst and a J.D. Candidate at The George Washington University Law School, focusing on national security and cybersecurity law.