America's wireless strategy: If it ain't broke, don't fix it
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Why are politicians obsessed with fixing things that aren’t broken? In case you haven’t seen the headlines, former House Speaker Newt GingrichNewton (Newt) Leroy GingrichMORE (R-Ga.) has been arguing that the United States government should choose one company to build a single, wholesale fifth-generation (5G) wireless network. Let me get this straight: One of the staunchest Republicans is pushing for a socialist-style 5G network? This is like proposing that we return to the telephone monopoly. Am I in the Twilight Zone?

When the Trump administration floated the idea of nationalizing 5G networks last year, the suggestion was so terrible that even the Republican Chair of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC)—and all of the other commissioners regardless of party affiliation—rejected it out of hand. Likewise, Gingrich’s proposal must be tossed out with the trash.

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To back up just a bit, the United States and China are locked in a race to develop the standards for 5G. America with its pro-investment, light-touch regulation won the race to 4G, and the benefits to the economy and to our way of life are immediately evident. The largest and most successful edge providers—think Apple, Amazon, and Google—proliferated under a system that allowed them to ride the fastest networks to global domination. Notably, all of these companies are American.

The move to 5G will impact the lives of everyone who has access to it. It will be 20 times faster, more responsive and instantaneous—no more slow-motion lip syncing! 5G will drive smart city technology to power state-of-the-art traffic control, medical response, and an internet-fueled economy. Connected cars, for example, will use 5G to avoid accidents and, in some cases, to enable driverless cars. With applications like these, 5G will be at the heart of urban cities (it is obviously more important for cars to be able connect successfully in heavy traffic areas versus wide-open, rural spaces). Virtually all announced deployments of 5G so far are in major cities for exactly this reason. Network operators want and need to deploy 5G in urban areas.

Rather than private sector versus government-led deployment, the real issue is how to create the standards that drive ubiquitous 5G so the U.S. can lead globally. Our light-touch, pro-competition, high-investment strategy worked to reach 4G first, and our wireless economy, jobs, and multi-billion-dollar tech companies are the proof. It seems really incredible that we would abandon our successful approach and instead rely on strategies that simply do not work in America.

In a 5G world, there will be less dependence on old-style antennas and tall masts. Instead, the transmitter receivers are much smaller. These “small cells” enable vast amounts of data to be sent over millimeter waves. It may be an advantage for China to be able to simply decree the small cell plan necessary to deploy 5G, but that is just one part of the overall 5G strategy. 

The United States is already headed in a good direction with 5G. Cisco calculates that by 2022, up to 9% of mobile connections in the U.S. could be 5G, compared to only 4 percent in Asia. Let’s keep on this path by using a strategy that works: allocating spectrum through public auctions open to all bidders (rather than losing precious time considering vague, untried propositions). Failing to allocate spectrum to those who value it the most is a formula for failure. As FCC Commissioner Brendan Carr put it, “…fighting China with China-like policies would fail. The 4G networks in the U.S. are the envy of the world. What’s not? Our government-run infrastructure projects, such as our crumbling roads and bridges and failed high-speed-rail projects. Don’t expect anything better from a government-run 5G network.”

So, I urge our leaders to concentrate on what’s important: How can we best encourage network operators to rapidly deploy 5G in all communities, including underserved areas and places where people of color are in the majority?

Nationalizing 5G is NOT the way to beat China to this important finish line. Capitalism has advantages, and our track record proves that our 5G strategy is not broken. Let’s encourage our politicians, regardless of party, to focus on broken policy, rather than breaking policy that works.

Kim Keenan is co-chair of the DC-based Internet Innovation Alliance (IIA).