We can't copy China's game plan if we want to beat them to 5G

We can't copy China's game plan if we want to beat them to 5G
© Getty Images

In the race to 5G, China is winning. The United States was slow out of the gate and is now playing catch up. The question at this point is not so much when we will get there but whether or not we will beat China.

More importantly, it’s about what kind of economic and political system will predominate the future of U.S. telecommunications.

ADVERTISEMENT

While the finish line is not exactly clear, here’s how the Mercatus Center’s Brent Skorup recently explained it: “The finish line is a fully upgraded domestic network infrastructure that allows businesses and consumers across the country to take advantage of the new technology and gives the U.S. tech industry the foundation to design 5G applications and services for a global market.” 

Certainly, winning the race is important. Many have noted that there is more at stake here than national pride. As Federal Communications Commissioner Brendan Carr recently explained:“It’s no coincidence that the largest companies in the world — Amazon, Microsoft, Apple and Google — are all tech, all American, and all riding on our mobile broadband networks.”

Winning the race to 4G positioned the United States as an unrivaled success and ushered in the app economy. 

5G will usher in a generation of automation and connectivity that will include driverless cars, automated factories, health apps and new services that require a new generation of connectivity. And losing the race to China doesn’t just have economic implications.

As Harvard Law School professor Susan Crawford recently noted, “[I]t means all the elements of the information services supply chain from data transport to what apps can be used ... to the analytics and artificial intelligence applied to those apps for advertising and very targeted locational services. That will all be in China's hands.” 

But being the first to 5G won’t be accomplished by borrowing from China’s state-sponsored playbook, and recent proposals to nationalize a 5G network are ripped directly from it. Rather than running from what’s made the U.S. the leader in technology and telecommunications, we should embrace it. 

So far, the U.S. has the largest commercial deployment of 5G in the world. We didn’t achieve that by copying China. Instead, we accomplished it through a uniquely American approach: by finding opportunities to improve —rather than increase — government involvement.

That’s meant getting more spectrum into private hands rather than bringing more resources under government control and empowering innovators and entrepreneurs to compete with one another to provide the best, most comprehensive network.

The race for 5G is indeed high stakes, and we should be pulling out all the stops to get there. But, contrary to what many seem to suggest, the U.S. isn't behind because of a lack of government involvement. In fact, the opposite is true.

Current permitting for the infrastructure necessary for a 5G network is done at a local level, and it is perhaps the single largest impediment to effective deployment. A truly national 5G network will require hundreds of thousands of new cell sites. This will all require approval and permitting across nearly 40,000 municipalities and counties. 

5G deployment is not being held up by a lack of private-sector investment. Instead, we are witnessing what economists recognize as a “tragedy of the anticommons.”

In short, with tens of thousands of local regulatory bodies requiring permitting, fees and hearings, there are simply too many opportunities for someone somewhere to say “no.” This means that local officials, perhaps elected by just a few dozen people, are dictating the future of 5G for America. 

If the federal government is looking to play an active role in 5G deployment, there is certainly one to play. And the Federal Communications Commission has taken a leading role in finding ways to expedite 5G deployment.

These efforts require willing partners in cities and public service commissions across the country. That's the national policy 5G requires, and the future literally depends on it.

Christopher Koopman is the senior director of strategy and research at the Center for Growth and Opportunity at Utah State University.