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There’s a lot of concern from the Trump administration and policymakers about America’s ability to compete with China on building the next generation of wireless networks, but AT&T chief Randall Stephenson said Wednesday that China isn’t beating the United States on 5G — yet.
While AT&T, which owns CNN’s parent company WarnerMedia, has 5G up and running in a dozen markets (including parts of the Research Triangle region and Verizon is moving ahead with 5G in as many as 30 markets), Chinese 5G networks remain in trial stages, Stephenson said at an event hosted by the Economic Club of Washington, D.C.
But China is investing heavily in the technology.
“China is going to commit to this. They have said that this is a major focus of theirs from an economic development standpoint and a security standpoint,” Stephenson said.
He lamented that it can take two or three years to get a permit to even start work on a new cell site in the United States, and that the process moves along a lot faster in China.
But there’s another hurdle for US companies in the 5G race. The Chinese company Huawei is leading the way on producing the necessary network components — and the US government has banned the company from bidding on US government contracts. Federal employees are also forbidden from using its products.
The US government has long been suspicious that Beijing could use Huawei equipment for spying but hasn’t provided public evidence to support those concerns. The company strongly denies the accusations.
Stephenson said that the government is right to be cautious about where it gets the equipment from, but suggested that officials aren’t doing a good job explaining why the security risk exists.
“To me, the biggest risk is not that the Chinese government might listen in on our phone conversations or mine our data some how if we use their equipment. That’s not the issue,” he said.
Stephenson is worried, however, about how the 5G equipment could eventually be connected to millions of devices tied to US infrastructure — including autonomous cars, manufacturing floors, refineries and traffic management in cities.
“We have to ask ourselves a question: If that much of our infrastructure will be attached to this kind of technology, do we want to be cautious about who is the underlying company behind that technology? We damn well better be,” Stephenson said.
The Trump administration has also pressured other nations to stop using Huawei technology, but many foreign countries aren’t moving to block the company. Germany announced earlier this month that it would not ban any companies from bidding to build its 5G networks.
Stephenson said Europe doesn’t have a choice because it used Huawei for its 4G network and the company is not allowing interoperability to 5G.