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Technical Standards and U.S. Security

Updated: May 18, 2020

As 5th generation wireless technology rapidly develops, standards-development organizations weigh technological contributions from leading innovators. Standards development plays an important role in technological interoperability, but may also carry other consequences.

The members of SDOs assess new technologies that provide different functions. They decide, largely by consensus, whether something is technologically superior to alternatives and merits being included in the specifications of a new standard.

These standards are important. They ensure high quality and enable functions, such as video chatting with smart phones from different makers, to work seamlessly with each other.

There also are economic and national security ramifications. Chinese national champion Huawei is vying to pass U.S. innovators’ lead in foundational 5G research and standards. In foundational wireless infrastructure R&D and standards, only a few companies set the pace, led by Qualcomm and Huawei. Huawei presents a growing concern because its overtaking 5G leadership would put American national and economic security at heightened risk.

The Trump administration last year put Huawei and other foreign firms on an “entities list.” This restricts U.S. technology sales that may have military application to Chinese firms, without the U.S. Department of Commerce granting an exception.

However, the rule is so broadly written that it blocks leading U.S. companies from participation in SDOs if a Chinese competitor like Huawei belongs to the SDO. And Huawei and its cohorts have joined the key 5G SDOs.

U.S. Senators led by Armed Services Committee Chairman James Inhofe have urged the administration to fix this. They write, “We are deeply concerned about the risks to the U.S. global leadership position in 5G wireless technology as a result of this reduced participation, and the economic and national security implications of any diminished U.S. role in 5G.

“. . . It is critical for U.S. companies to participate fully in these standards-setting bodies to ensure that their technologies are represented in the standards. When U.S. export controls restrict U.S. companies from participating in standards-setting bodies, China-based Huawei is well positioned to fill any gaps. As the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States has said, any restrictions that hinder U.S. participation in 5G standards-setting bodies ‘would leave an opening for China to expand its influence on the 5G standard-setting process,’ a result that ‘would have substantial negative national security consequences for the United States.’”

CFIUS assesses proposed foreign purchases in the United States for potential security vulnerabilities those mergers and acquisitions would cause. Congress strengthened CFIUS’s hand in 2018.

In early 2018, CFIUS, whose sole concern is U.S. national security, warned regarding America’s 5G foundational R&D leader, “Reduction in Qualcomm’s long-term technological competitiveness and influence in standards development would significantly impact national security in the United States.” In that case, upon CFIUS’s recommendation, the president blocked the U.S. firm’s being acquired by a hostile foreign competitor.

In the same way, it would be a tragedy for America’s future security and prosperity to shoot ourselves in the foot by fettering our technological leaders from standards involvement today.

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