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Geopolitics and the 5G Supply Chain

In this Director's Forum, Wilson Center President Jane Harman was joined by Ajit Pai, Chairman of the Federal Communications Commission. After the forum, a panel of experts went deeper into this key international policy challenge.

Date & Time

Nov. 12, 2019
3:00pm – 4:30pm ET


6th Floor, Woodrow Wilson Center
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Geopolitical tensions are at the center of the supply chain for next generation mobile technology. From manufacturing to regulation, nations and regions are attempting to position themselves as leaders in each element of the chain. And overarching security concerns make policy options much harder. How does the United States fit into this highly complex puzzle? Where do things stand in the race to 5G, and what can America do to shape the final outcome?


In this Director's Forum, Wilson Center President Jane Harman was joined by Ajit Pai, Chairman of the Federal Communications Commission. After the forum, a panel of experts went deeper into this key international policy challenge. 


Ajit Pai, Chairman, Federal Communications Commission

“In the United States, we have made it a national priority to lead in the development and deployment of 5G technologies, because as [Jane Harman] pointed out, these technologies increasingly are going to transform American industries, from transportation to healthcare, from agriculture to education, manufacturing to shipping. And so, we have done that at the FCC by implementing what I’ve called the ‘5G Fast Plan’ – a plan for facilitating America’s superiority in 5G technologies.”

“Because we’re talking about billions more connected devices coming online, it won’t just be phones, it’ll be everything from refrigerators to cars, we need to ensure that security protocols are thought of up front, as opposed to after the fact.”

“I think there are some countries that are exploring different strategies from the United States. And our message is pretty consistent: That to the extent that you agree with the security assessment, we, of course, respect your right to make any decision you want, but speaking as the United States, we do not believe that this is an area where we can take a risk and hope for the best, given how transformative 5G technologies are likely to be. The United States, at least, wants to make sure that 5G security is a forethought, as opposed to an afterthought.”

“We’re talking not just about a wireless tower that needs to be upgraded. We’re talking about software that needs, over time, millions of lines of code to update it, and any one of those lines that is malicious could be a vector for including malware and viruses. Does any government have the ability to police, in real time, all of those lines of code?…. We certainly believe that the risk is too great.”

“We are interconnected. Networks don’t know, or respect, national boundaries, as nation-states would. So we need to take steps to ensure that we do protect ourselves.”

Robert Daly, Director Kissinger Institute

“There’s a question here with 5G, how much of this is for innovation? And if it’s about innovation and public welfare then it might make sense to wait for the reason Congresswoman Harman mentioned. Or is this about commercial dominance and ultimately about the balance of power?”

“There is a broad connection and there’s a specific connection. The broad connection is that we are now engaged in a global competition with China for influence over security architectures, over trade and investment, very much over the development, marketization, and regulation of tech that has moved to the foreground and related to that also the norms and practices of underlying values systems.”

“We are offering quality, an ideal set of circumstances, that is expensive and slow-coming, whereas China is offering quantity and good-enough technology to get started now. I’m concerned that in many places we just lose the quality vs quantity in desperately poor areas; this is the one way that they can get enormous benefits, even with problems, relatively cheaply now and China continues to march ahead of much of the rest of the world.”

Melissa Griffin, Wilson Center Public Policy Fellow

“A lot of the security solutions I’m hearing articulated in the public space are very issue-tailored to Huawei, and I’m less concerned where we can solve those and I’m more concerned whether or not we’re looking at this much broader area of risk management.”

“I think having a better sense of what your technology is doing is important because I think often times people don’t understand the implications or even how to secure something, or think about personal hygiene, because it’s like a magic box in their hand.”

Daniel Kroese, Associate Director, National Risk Management Center Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency, Department of Homeland Security

“It’s really a connected, wholistic ICT infrastructure we need to think about as well. We need to look ahead over the coming decades, and in a world where that infrastructure is going to power more and more than it ever has before, hold more valuable data than it ever has before, how do we have a framework, a risk informed lens, that gives us trust and assurance in the organizations, the components, and the people that play vital roles in that.”

Hosted By

Science and Technology Innovation Program

The Science and Technology Innovation Program (STIP) serves as the bridge between technologists, policymakers, industry, and global stakeholders.  Read more

Digital Futures Project

Less and less of life, war and business takes place offline. More and more, policy is transacted in a space poorly understood by traditional legal and political authorities. The Digital Futures Project is a map to constraints and opportunities generated by the innovations around the corner - a resource for policymakers navigating a world they didn’t build.  Read more

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