The ancient Athenian politician and general Themistocles (524–459 BC) is believed to have said: “He who controls the sea controls everything.” A few hundred years later, Cicero referenced Themistocles in his Letters to Atticus, reinforcing that control of the seas inevitably results in control of the empire. And you know what? Some 2,500 years later, those observations still apply.
My preference would have been to call this piece “Command of the Communication Sea,” but since everything “cyber” is hot today, I needed to grab your attention. You see, if you can get over the mental hump that cybersecurity issues are merely communication system issues, tackling your “cyber” issues becomes a whole lot easier. That’s part of a problem we have created by mystifying cybersecurity, as I touch on here.
Modern-day “Communication Sea”
Back to the issue: the modern-day “communication sea” will be 5G networks, at least for the immediate future. Yes, there is a lot of talk about quantum-related networks – I’m a fan of them – but I can’t see a mass rollout of quantum-related tech any time soon. Capital costs are just way too high, there may be compatibility issues, and you cannot get the same level of services as you would on 5G.
That doesn’t mean quantum-related networks are an inferior technology compared to 5G. Quantum key distribution (QKD) networks provide excellent promise for securing communications, for example, whereas 5G offers a type of “global standard” that allows for seamless handoffs between networks, between Wi-Fi and LTE. There is a wonderful 5G cheat sheet available here which can get into some tech talk. It’s a long cheat sheet, but very worthwhile if you need “education by firehose” on 5G.
Let me capture this quickly: all that my above observations mean is that there are feasibility issues related to quantum and those gaps will be closed over time. I expect that we’re going to get a good 5-8 years of use out of 5G, starting in 2020. So as we aim for Mars (quantum), let’s not forget about landing on the Moon (5G) because there is value in making that stop along the way.
Now the important question: if the “communication sea” for the foreseeable future is going to be 5G, who controls it? Well, the standards for 5G are set by 3GPP (3rd Generation Partnership Project) and setting standards certainly is a means of control, but more about that in a moment.
Some History First
3GPP is a collaborative group of telecommunications standards associations that started working together to bring us 3G networks and have continued to work together to set the standards that have brought us 3G, HSUPA, HSPA+, WiMAX, UMTS, LTE, and so on. You get the picture and you can find more on the history of the 3GPP group here. I’ll come back to an early history moment of the group that matters.
But that still doesn’t answer the question of who controls 5G? It’s an important question to ask and answer, because if we follow the time-tested observations of Themistocles and Cicero, whoever controls 5G is going to control everything. And subsequently, whoever controls quantum-related networks will control the next evolution of what “everything” becomes.
But what is “everything,” you ask? I’ll make it simple: “everything” is power. Economic power. Political power. Military power. Resource power. Information power. Manufacturing power. Standards-making power. You catch my drift. If you acquire power in these areas, you have both the ability and capability to control. And don’t always assume “control” is nefarious, but control is still, well, control!
And that’s where the realpolitik in me comes into play: If we’re all going to play off one set of standards, then the producer who has the most consumers wins it all.
So Who Is Doing the Producing?
Here are the top telecommunication equipment companies ranked by overall revenue in 2017 (in billion U.S. dollars):
What do you see? I see China controlling 35% of the telecommunications equipment sales, nearly 30% of that going to the “private” and “employee-owned” (my quotations) corporation called Huawei. That’s the same Huawei that surpassed Apple as the number two smartphone maker in the world and now only trails South Korea’s Samsung. It also happens to be the same Huawei that has a company vision and mandate of building a fully connected, intelligent world through ongoing investment in connecting the unconnected and with AI (my emphasis).
Sidebar: If you have any genuine interest in cybersecurity, forget – okay, don’t forget, re-prioritize – all the DDoS, ransomware, spoofing, and related cybersecurity talk and put at the top of your list how the arrest of Huawei’s CFO, Meng Wanzhou, plays out. This incident, which has the geopolitical overtones of Thor’s Hammer doing what it’s known for, may be more consequential to cybersecurity concerns than any new technology, at least in the near term.
Now back to boring stuff, like standards, companies going bust, and slowly eating (stealing?) away a market over three decades.
Before all the fanciness and high bandwidth stuff we do on our phones, some of us remember 2G phones and that standard called GSM (and wow were you the rock star of rock stars if you had a quad-band phone!). GSM became the global standard for mobility, where nearly 90% of mobile communications have some use of or foundation on the GSM standard. That standard came out of the European Telecommunications Standards Institute (ETSI). It certainly made sense as Nokia (Finland) and Ericsson (Sweden) were the dominant players in the market, both in terms of telecommunications equipment and mobility.
Where are these companies now? Well, they both still exist, but they are just fractions of the dominant players they once were, almost completely out of the consumer mobile market.
And whatever happened to Motorola, you know that powerhouse U.S. company that after spending a short time at Google (about two years) got sold off to Lenovo in 2014? That’s the same Lenovo that dukes it out annually with HP for top spot as vendor in personal computers. When Motorola was a powerhouse, not only did they have a say on how the market went, but they were getting exclusive business from the U.S. government and were well known for their public safety and business equipment. Now they make Droids.
Remember 3GPP Mentioned Above?
It all started with a strategic initiative between Nortel Networks (also known as Northern Telecom) and AT&T Wireless. I am old enough to remember when Nortel was the telecommunications powerhouse. Virtually every Canadian I knew that had some extra cash in the mid- and late-1990s was scooping up whatever Nortel stock they could get. People were basing their entire retirement life on their Nortel holdings!
The demise of Nortel matters, which is why I wanted to close this 3GPP loop. When you are a major player (as Nortel was), you have say in both standards-making and market control, specifically through manufacturing. So while Nortel was certainly mismanaged and tangled up with some funny bookkeeping (some history here), I invite you all to do a deep dive into the descent of Nortel and ascent of Huawei.
Start here with a WSJ article written in 2012. I particularly like the paragraph that starts: “Using seven passwords stolen from top Nortel executives, including the chief executive, the hackers—who appeared to be working in China—penetrated Nortel’s computers at least as far back as 2000 and over the years downloaded technical papers, research-and-development reports, business plans, employee emails and other documents…” You get the point.
Oh, and did I mention that Nortel’s peak stock price came in July 2000?
And don’t get me started on BlackBerry. I still remember when that company preferred to go by the name Research In Motion (RIM) and these products were lauded for their encryption capabilities. Researching this case study requires a little more digging than Nortel, but it’s certainly worth a look. Here’s a starting point for you.
So, Let’s Summarize
Somebody has been making a two- or three-decade slow play to eat up the communications sea, which is really the “cyber” sea. That somebody has managed to do it from all possible points, primarily from backbone telecommunications equipment that are absolutely essential to network operation and end-point consumer goods, which we all rely on. Michael Pillsbury probably has a good idea who that is.
And that somebody would love to have the “master kill” switch, as would any emperor. Remember what I said above: it’s always about power. Wars, even rises and demises of empires, have been won and lost on choke points in the sea, so let us not forget for a moment which is the most important sea of the 21st century and why control over that choke point matters.
Around the same time Themistocles made his famous saying, somebody else half a world away wrote these words: “Let your plans be dark and impenetrable as night, and when you move, fall like a thunderbolt.” That was the Chinese general and philosopher Sun Tzu.
We’d be wise to appreciate what both of these two respected and sage persons said 2,500 years ago, especially as one actor today is simultaneously looking to land on the moon and go to Mars, while another major actor is still trying to figure out how the biggest shift of wealth in history happened in under 20 years. Appreciation of these two comments may very well decide who controls the communications sea, or as Cicero inferred, who controls the empire.
About George Platsis
George Platsis works the private, public and non-profit sectors to address their strategic, operational and training needs, focusing on projects related to business development, risk/crisis management, resilience, cyber and information security, and cultural relations.