The 5G fight of the decade
This year will bring one of the most rapid advances in the deployment of 5G and its applications. In the coming decade, 5G could create paradigm change in our digital economy and society. 5G is much more than a faster upgrade from 4G. It enables quantum leaps in speed and presents unique potential with its low latency. 5G will open up new possibilities in health, education, agriculture, manufacturing, and more, adding up to trillions of dollars to the global economy. American leadership within this emerging industrial technology revolution will require using the potential of secure and reliable 5G as a core foundation for our digital economy and society.
The debate in Washington has often centered around concerns over the security threats and international expansion of Huawei, the dominating Chinese champion in this field. While there are encouraging indications that the United States is now starting to concentrate on the full range of issues regarding 5G, American action to date is far from commensurate with what is at stake. Meanwhile, China has been making considerable investments in 5G deployment and applications, while even launching research on 6G. If the United States fails to overcome impediments and dedicate adequate investments toward progress on 5G, then China may succeed in getting ahead with a decisive advantage in this new frontier.
The 5G era is well underway in China. The first 5G enabled brain surgery occurred in a Chinese military hospital last year. China has launched the commercial employment of 5G, and 126,000 base stations have entered use across the country, with more than 400,000 base stations estimated to be deployed this year. Chinese consumers have been buying new 5G phones, while Apple will not release its own until later this year. Chinese network operators are expected to spend $411 billion on 5G in the next decade. Beijing is also establishing projects that will promote impactful applications of 5G on medicine, education, and industrial technology.
In 2020, a resolution for policymakers should be to advance the debate on 5G to enhance American competitiveness for this coming decade. On this front, it is encouraging that there are numerous bills involving 5G that are working their way through Congress at various stages. Respectively, these bills focus on several important elements of the debate, such as security, spectrum, and standards. Certain critical issues still remain unaddressed, however, and the legislative details and technical concerns involving 5G are certainly complex and often prove highly contested and politicized.
For Congress, a 5G caucus can contribute to ensuring policymakers are informed about the security concerns, economic potential, and digital opportunities that will come into play with 5G by convening experts and stakeholders from across the industry, academia, and government. At the same time, the White House should establish a 5G task force to improve leadership and interagency coordination on a strategy that must address security, innovation, and infrastructure in a much more holistic manner.
American efforts in 5G have been impeded by issues yet to be overcome. A plan by the Federal Communications Commission focuses on auctions of spectrum and tackles regulatory impediments to constructing small cells, but the American rollout of 5G has been uneven at best. Disparities in connectivity could also exacerbate the digital divide. It is necessary to increase investments in the underlying infrastructure, and there may not be adequate market incentives for such spending in the near term. The full potential of 5G will be realized based on the future applications that build upon this foundation. American companies do not even have the workforce to fulfill demands for expanding the underlying infrastructure right now, and this will require new initiatives in training and education.
Meanwhile, deficiencies in midband spectrum, which is crucial to the realization of 5G at scale, remain a serious problem in the rollout of 5G. Although the Trump administration announced the development of the national spectrum strategy, which was supposed to be launched last year, it has been badly delayed. Moreover, the acting director of the National Telecommunications and Information Administration, the agency that was responsible for the strategy, stepped down last month, and a permanent replacement has yet to be nominated. The sharing and reassignment of spectrum will be critical to clear the way for 5G this year, but that will require leadership and officials who take action with implementation.
The United States should make investments to catalyze innovation in 5G and 6G. This is not a race to be won but rather a marathon that will play out over this decade. The future of 5G will require more investments in the research and development of core technologies for such connectivity. In China, Huawei alone has plans to spend more than $20 billion a year on research. American companies still possess more advanced technology on some fronts but have simply struggled to compete with such scale.
Policymakers can start with tax credits for 5G research and development, which are crucial to American competitiveness. Along the way, there will be opportunities for the United States to pursue alternative architectures that leverage greater virtualization and to concentrate on techniques that ensure future 5G networks will be secure by design. This will no doubt be the decade of 5G, and the United States must fully embrace this future.
Elsa Kania is an adjunct senior policy fellow for the technology and national security program at the Center for a New American Security in Washington.
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