A little more than a half-century ago President John F. Kennedy laid out a course of action that eventually led to the United States winning the first space race and landing men on the moon. It was an audacious plan that pitted the nation against its main geopolitical rival in a contest for technological supremacy. It was a race we eventually won as our economic might and technological acumen prevailed.
We are in another innovation race right now. The race to 5G isn’t accompanied by the soaring rhetoric and romantic notions that marked our journey to the moon, but it does position the United States against our major economic and technological rivals in a contest that could have more far-reaching effects than the race to the moon.
The Trump administration deserves credit for articulating a policy that aims to see America win the race to 5G. “[I]t is imperative that America be first in fifth-generation (5G) wireless technologies — wireless technologies capable of meeting the high-capacity, low-latency, and high-speed requirements that can unleash innovation broadly across diverse sectors of the economy and the public sector,” the White House said in a recent memorandum.
But it’s important to recognize that support for 5G isn’t a party-line issue. Politics stop at the network’s edge, with tech-savvy lawmakers on both sides of the aisle agreeing that 5G is critical to future economic and societal success.
The benefits of the space race sometimes seemed amorphous to average Americans back in the 1960s, but the benefits for being first in 5G are concrete for modern citizens, highlighted by our success in 4G LTE technologies. As a result of our leadership in 4G, in 2016 we increased GDP by $100 billion, created more jobs, lowered consumer costs, and enabled the app industry. Pioneering 4G allowed American industry to reap roughly $125 billion in revenue that could have gone elsewhere.
5G promises to have an even larger economic impact, as the technology is projected to enable more than $12 trillion in global economic output by 2035. Here at home, when the entire 5G value chain is considered, some expect the benefits to top $3.5 trillion, support 22 million jobs, and contribute the equivalent of the entire economy of India to real American global GDP.
With speeds up to 100 times faster than 4G, lag-time lowered by a factor of five, mobile data volumes 1,000 times greater than today, and lower drain on batteries for remote cellular devices, 5G will enable new capabilities and unlock innovation across the economy.
5G isn’t just a numbers game. It promises to open the world for smart cities, driverless cars, improved health care and a fully-realized internet of things will revolutionize entire industries. 4G made the internet a visual medium, but 5G will make it tactile as virtual and enhanced reality are deployed and integrated. Wireless communications could replace cable TV and revolutionize health care by enabling reliable remote health monitoring.
For the moon shot to work, we needed rockets and a vast government-funded infrastructure to succeed. 5G—the wireless industry’s version of the moon shot—won’t need rocket scientists or taxpayers’ dollars as the nation’s wireless providers are expected to invest $275 billion to build out 5G networks across the country. By comparison, Congress spent $25.4 billion for the Apollo program, roughly $145 billion in today’s dollars.
That’s a lot of investment, but China and South Korea, the other top contestants, aren’t sitting still. China plans $400 billion in 5G-related investment over five years, and Beijing’s infrastructure spending and cell-tower building spree shows how China is outpacing the U.S. during 5G’s early stages.
China has invested $17.7 billion in capital so far and added more than 350,000 wireless facilities since 2015, giving the country about 1.9 million wireless sites. By comparison, there are approximately 200,000 sites in the United States. This means the United States has 0.4 sites compared to China’s 5.3 sites for every 10 square miles.
China is moving fast, but its lead at the beginning of the race doesn’t mean it will win. The USSR launched the first satellite, put the first humans in space and sent the first probe on the moon, but in the end, it was an American who left the first footprints there.
A half-century ago we were challenged to invent our way to a new future. It’s time to lead again.
Bruce Mehlman is a founding co-chairman of the Internet Innovation Alliance and previously served as assistant secretary of commerce for technology policy.