CAPITOL HILL - If you're fuzzy on next-generation 5G wireless connectivity, you aren't alone.
Powerful U.S. lawmakers who help shape the legal framework for America's technological advances on Tuesday admitted ignorance and confusion about the highly-anticipated broadband system already being deployed in parts of the world.
"I actually know very little about 5G," said Dianne Feinstein of California, the top Democrat on the Senate Judiciary Committee.
"Today, we're going to talk about something that I'm by no means an expert on," the panel's chairman, South Carolina Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham, said at a hearing where America's top cybersecurity officials testified on 5G's promise and looming perils.
"It's really hard for people to get their heads around what we're talking about here," Republican Sen. Ben Sasse of Nebraska said. "First of all, what is it?"
Witnesses said the fifth generation of wireless technology, or 5G, will bring eye-popping data transmission capacity and spur a new age of digital device connectivity that will revolutionize many people's daily lives, as well as America's economic output.
"5G is going to be about machine-to-machine communication, the internet of things," said Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Cyber and International Communications Robert Strayer.
"Advances in 5G will support greater bandwidth, capacity for billions of sensors and smart devices, and ultra-low latency [minimal data delays] necessary for highly-reliable critical communications," said the director of the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency at the Department of Homeland Security, Christopher Krebs. "Autonomous vehicles, critical manufacturing, medical doctors performing remote surgery, and a smart electric grid represent a small fraction of the technologies and economic activity that 5G will support."
Added Strayer: "The massive amounts of data transmitted by Internet of things devices on 5G networks will also advance artificial intelligence."
Lawmakers signaled they are coming to grips with the anticipated impact.
"I'm told 5G is expected to provide not only 20 times faster network performance, but also generate 12.3 trillion [dollars] in global sales activity by 2035," Feinstein said. "I'm told it's going to create millions of new jobs and launch entirely new industries."
With such an impact, including a new era of ultra-connectivity, will come a need to protect the network from foreign interference or manipulation and to guard against espionage and data theft, according to U.S. officials.
"With all the critical services relying on 5G networks, the stakes for safeguarding them could not be higher. A disruption to that underlying 5G network will disrupt all of those critical services. That's why this is so fundamentally different and so much more important that we get the security right," Strayer said.
"When we talk about [interruptions to] 5G, we're talking about autonomous vehicles not being able to operate," Krebs said, adding that such a scenario constitutes "a life-safety issue where things won't work as designed."
Lawmakers focused on China, which has emerged as an early global leader in producing 5G infrastructure.
"The Chinese government has invested more than $400 billion in development. It has supported Chinese industry efforts in international standard-setting bodies," Feinstein said.
She added that Chinese law requires companies like telecommunications giant Huawei to assist and cooperate with state security entities.
"Fundamentally, the private sector in China is an extension of the government, and so if our allies decide to trust Huawei, they are deciding to trust the Chinese government with their big data," Sasse said.
Witnesses echoed the apprehensions.
"We are concerned that China could compel actions by [5G] network vendors to act against the interests of our citizens or citizens of other countries around the world," Strayer said. "They [vendors] could be ordered to undermine network security, steal personal information or intellectual property, conduct espionage, disrupt critical services or conduct cyberattacks."
The United States bans Chinese companies from critical telecommunications infrastructure and has warned allies against Huawei's participation in building their 5G networks.
"We must protect our critical telecom infrastructure, and the United States is calling on all our security partners to be vigilant and to reject any enterprise that would compromise the integrity of our communications technology or national security systems," Vice President Mike Pence said earlier this year.
"Our success will depend on engagement with international allies," Krebs said at the hearing. "Ultimately, our goal, our vision is to enable that broader collective defense against cybersecurity threats, where the government and industry understand the risks we face and are prepared to defend against them."
"The United States will be a leader in 5G deployment, and we will do so using trusted vendors to build our networks," Strayer said. "Through our engagements, many other countries are now acknowledging the supply-chain risks and beginning to strengthen their security alongside the United States."
A few U.S. carriers have activated initial 5G systems in several U.S. cities. Coverage and carrier participation are expected to grow exponentially in coming years.