The risks and rewards of America’s 5G future: Highlights from my conversation with Tommy Ross | American Enterprise Institute

If the US 5G
rollout is to reach its full potential, network security must be a priority.
But what are the security risks of 5G, and how can the US win the global 5G
race? On the latest episode of “Explain to Shane,” I sat down
with Tommy Ross, Senior Policy Director at BSA | The Software Alliance and
author of BSA’s position paper titled “Securing 5G: A Call to Harness
Software Innovation,” which discusses the transition from hardware-dominated
networking to a software-centric model for 5G. Together, we addressed the
availability and importance of 5G network security tools.

Below is an
edited and abridged transcript of our talk. You can listen to “Explain to Shane”
on and subscribe via your preferred listening
. You can also read the full transcript of our discussion here. If you enjoyed this episode, leave us a review, and
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Shane Tews: Tommy, BSA recently sent a set
of comments to the National Telecommunications and Information Administration on
national strategy for 5G implementation and released a position paper called “Securing
5G: A Call to Harness Software Innovation,” both of which you authored. Can you
walk us through how to secure 5G at the network level and how this is important
to the edge consumer?

Tommy Ross: There
are a lot of different elements in 5G security, and a lot of different
technologies that go into building out a telecommunications network,
particularly one as complex as 5G, but what we focus on in the two papers that
you referenced is that 5G is really different from previous generations of
telecommunications technology because it is so software-centric. Those
software-centric capabilities in 5G bring built-in benefits that make it
inherently more secure than previous generations, but they also create
possibilities for applying different security techniques and security controls
in new ways that can promise greater security throughout the network. I don’t
want to overstate that, because there are huge risks that could come in a 5G
network that is not architected thoughtfully, but there are a lot of
possibilities to bring to bear in securing the network.

There are
inherent advantages to software-centric capabilities. There are standards that
build in stronger encryption and authentication, but also the internet protocol
(IP) basis of the network enables more consistent or system-wide application of
security controls, and the IP-based communications as well as the cloud
backbone underpinning 5G allows for more flexibility in providing tailored
environments and solutions for different types of data.

When you
think about the tailored solutions, there are possibilities. When people talk
about software-defined networking, network slicing — that kind of thing — we’re
really talking about using the cloud to create contained environments and apply
those different environments to different types of data. So, if you have IoT
devices that are being used by consumers, you could potentially allow traffic
between those devices to occur on a channel that is completely separate from
the communications between critical infrastructure technologies. That allows
you to keep actors that might be in one of those channels out of the other
channels and to apply tailored security rules in those different environments.

Beyond just
network slicing or software-defined networking that allows you to apply wide-scale
solutions by tailoring security rules to different environments, it also allows
you to create private networks. So, individual companies or critical
infrastructure operators can create completely self-contained networks to take
care of their communications needs and apply their own tailored security rules
without depending on the broader network to do that for them. That’s a big
advantage that you’ll see a lot of companies take advantage of.

When I first was reading about
software-defined networking, I was really fascinated with this whole idea of
“fetching,” where you would have a smart set of boxes with the capability to
grab things. You may need something momentarily for a project, but you don’t
need to hold onto it for a long time. You no longer have to build an entire
network operation of hardware and specific software because of the cloud. I
just thought, “Wow, what a great way to redesign this so we’re using all
of these amazing, innovative things we’ve come up with in the combination of
cloud and software.” The network slicing is an unsung hero here. That’s
really interesting for an enterprise to be able to utilize their network
capacity on different variations, so can you walk us through network slicing?

Just as you
think about the big motors and pistons you would find in a Cadillac from 30 years
ago, you think about telecommunications networks 30 or 50 years ago, and the
operators switching out connections and the circuit switching that previous
generations of telecommunications technologies relied on, and it was all
hardware-driven. Now, there are efforts to replace hardware components at many
different levels throughout the 5G architecture with software. And one of the
areas where that’s gotten the most attention has been with radio access network

With 5G, the
very core of the network has gone from being heavily based on hardware routers
and switches to being almost entirely virtualized. That’s a big shift, and that
kind of virtualization allows you to really rethink how you’re managing the
network. It is much less like a traditional telecommunications network, and
much more like an application software: much more flexible with patches and
things like that. You can not only address security issues as they arise, but
you can change the software’s functionality over time.

You mentioned radio access networking
(RAN), and there’s virtual (vRAN), and lately, in the news, we’ve been hearing
about O-RAN. What’s going on with O-RAN, and how does that fit into the 5G
operations and networking?

There are four
terms that people need to be familiar with. There’s RAN — the radio access
network technology — which allows individual devices to connect with the 5G
network. It’s the boxes that are on cell phone towers in the current
generation, and there’ll be small cells in the 5G generation. There is OpenRAN,
which means the radio access network technology is built on open standards that
are common across devices that are not proprietary — that are transparent to
everyone — and that’s really important because it allows interoperability
across different providers and technology developers, and it also allows individual
companies to develop solutions to certain parts of the radio access network
functionality that are modular — that can be plugged in with things that other
people are doing in other parts of the RAN.

All of that
is really important for increasing the diversity of suppliers and for
increasing competition to supply radio access network technology. When you have
more competition, it allows you to incentivize competition around security, and
that’s best for consumers and enterprises alike. So, OpenRAN is really

O-RAN is a
specific effort to produce OpenRAN standards, so it’s kind of a subset of
OpenRAN. And then virtualized RAN is a series of efforts to produce RAN
technology that is software-based, rather than hardware. I think the vRAN that
is also OpenRAN is really the jackpot, because vRAN allows you to get away from
the hardware boxes that bring both supply chain security and vendor lock-in

If you buy
hardware-based RAN technology, you’re probably only going to have the resources
to fund those boxes every 20 years or so, whereas if it’s software, it starts
out cheaper, because there aren’t the physical components associated with it,
and it allows you to update it, patch it, and/or replace it with other software
solutions or add those modular solutions in an easy, flexible manner.

If all that
can be done based on open standards and with open-source-driven architectures
that allow developers to plug into open-source components and build their own
products off that open-source basis, that’s really good for fostering a
dynamic, diverse ecosystem in that space. That will reduce a lot of the
security concerns.

What is going on with China’s 5G strategy?
It sounds like they are not following the same path, or they’re the reason why
we’re creating O-RAN, which is a response to the need to not be 100 percent in China’s
supply chain path. How is their model different than what you just described?

I think it
begins with their national champions. They’ve invested a lot of resources in
subsidizing Huawei and ZTE and other providers in their system. Huawei, in
particular, has achieved a really favorable market position, because they’ve offered
lower-priced products and services that have appealed to a lot of countries with
fewer resources to expend on developing telecommunications networks. And
they’re able to offer lower-priced products and services for two main reasons:
One is that they are heavily subsidized by the Chinese government, and two is that
they invest less in the quality of their products and services.

I think we
would underestimate Huawei if we just assumed all their products are
substandard. They can achieve a dominant market position because people want
their technologies and feel like their technologies are able to meet basic
needs, but it comes with some risk. I don’t think that we’ve seen clear
evidence of a lot of Huawei’s nefarious activities, like the Chinese government
ensuring there are back doors that allow them to access all sorts of data. It
doesn’t mean it’s not part of the master plan, but I don’t think we’ve seen many
indications it has happened.

What I do
think we’ve seen is a lot of evidence that Huawei just doesn’t invest in
developing secure code and quality controls around its products, which
generates a few problems. One is that most of Huawei’s equipment is
proprietary, so there’s no transparency around it, and, from what we
understand, every instantiation is different. Huawei sends in engineers, and
they code on the spot, and I’m sure they have some repositories that they draw
from and some standard solutions that they put in place, but there is also a
lot of variation from one part (or instantiation) to the other, which makes it
really hard to identify where there might be anomalies or vulnerabilities in
the code.

If we know
the vulnerability in a standardized offering, the vulnerability will exist in
every instantiation of that offering, so you can patch it and mitigate the
risk. But if every offering is different, you don’t know where those
vulnerabilities lie, which makes it really hard to mitigate. The proprietary
nature, paired with the very poor quality of code that we’ve seen in Huawei
products and instantiations of those products, is really concerning from a
security standpoint.

However, Huawei’s ability to compete — because the quality of their products is lower — depends on the proprietary nature of their products and services, because that puts in place the vendor lock-in that ensures they have customers for the next few decades, rather than just the next year or two until people discover significant vulnerabilities.

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