• United States

5G research by DARPA will lead to commercial applications

News Analysis
Apr 26, 20214 mins
5GInternet of ThingsNetworking

5G has a wealth of features suitable for Department of Defense uses, but its vulnerability to cyber attack calls for bulletproof security.

drafting military for cyber security cybersecurity govenment
Credit: gorodenkoff / Getty Images

The U.S. military is devoting time and resources into research on improving the signal quality and security of 5G–efforts that, if history is any indication, eventually will result in technologies that are available to commercial enterprises.

As Breaking Defense reports, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) has awarded roughly $500,000 in “exploratory” funding to wireless startup MixComm to demonstrate whether silicon-based millimeter wave (mmWave) power amplifiers can economically boost radio signals so the Department of Defense (DoD) can leverage 5G wireless connectivity globally.

A MixComm spokesperson told Breaking Defense that the company’s radios amplify mmWave frequencies in a way that offers “tremendous bandwidth, capacity and low latency,” in part because mmWaves use higher frequencies than commonly used today.

For commercial enterprises whose digital transformation is largely dependent on high-performance networks, bandwidth and capacity breakthroughs can’t come soon enough. Remote work and collaboration, the Internet of Things, multimedia, edge networks, and intelligent apps – all of these and more are dependent on network speed and scalability.

IoT risks for the military

The U.S. Air Force is eager to expand its use of 5G-enabled devices, but the military’s aerial branch is well aware that new technologies spawn new threats. To reduce its vulnerability as it integrates 5G-powered IoT devices into its network, the Air Force is collaborating with startups to develop IoT security solutions.

Most recently, the branch awarded Phosphorus Cybersecurity a research contract to develop automated tools for conducting inventory of IoT devices as well as patching and credential management of connected devices in a 5G environment, according to Washington Technology.

Needless to say, commercial enterprises that may be deploying thousands of 5G-enabled IoT devices have a rooting interest in better (and automated) security. Not only does every device connected to a network represent a point of potential vulnerability, newer devices by definition are more likely to have undetected security flaws.

5G networks are more vulnerable

Further, 5G networks are more vulnerable to cyberattacks than previous networks in five specific ways, as The Brookings Institution writes:

  • Networks built prior to 5G had “hardware choke points” where security controls could be applied to digital traffic. 5G, however, is a software-defined network (SDN) that lacks such security choke points.
  • In 5G, higher-level network functions traditionally performed by physical appliances will be virtualized in software that runs on popular commercial operating systems and use the common language of internet protocol, both of which are useful tools for hackers.
  • 5G networks are managed by software, which theoretically can be controlled by hackers. That means the hackers also can control your 5G network.
  • Dramatically expanded bandwidth means dramatically expanded avenues of attack.
  • 5G will spawn the deployment of tens of billions of IoT devices to networks. Again, more devices equal greater vulnerability.

Whatever 5G solutions DARPA and the Air Force come up with in collaboration with their research partners, commercialization likely won’t be far behind. Indeed, DARPA actually has a group that encourages commercialization of technology for with the agency has conducted research and development. DARPA also recently expanded its Embedded Entrepreneurship Initiative with “the goal of accelerating 150 DARPA-backed technologies out of the lab and into products that promise to fundamentally change the way we live, work, and fight.”

Commercial products developed by the US military

The history of military research resulting in commercialized products is long and rich. From the last century the list includes:

  • 1904 – Undershirts
  • 1914 – Feminine hygiene products (I am not making this up)
  • 1930 – Aviator sunglasses
  • 1942 – Duct tape
  • 1943 – Silly putty
  • 1946 – Microwave oven
  • 1956 – Ghost detector (I am making this up)
  • 1960 – GPS
  • 1969 – The internet
  • 1973 – The EpiPen

That’s a pretty good track record!

Christopher Nerney is a freelance technology writer living in upstate New York. Chris began his writing career in newspapers before joining Network World in 1996. He went on to become executive editor of several IT management sites for, including Datamation and eSecurity Planet. Chris is a regular blogger at ITworld, where he has written about tech business and now writes about science/tech research. Chris also covers big data and analytics as a freelancer for Data Informed. When he’s not writing, editing or spending time with his wife and three children, Chris performs original music and covers in bars, coffeehouses and on the streets around Saratoga Springs, N.Y.

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