Take the lead in 6G — or lose it to China
The bad news: If the United States remains on its current trajectory with 5G technology, then in a decade or less — with the advent of next-generation 6G mobile broadband — we are at risk of deploying a global information architecture based on Chinese design. And that means living in a world where communications are heavily influenced, if not controlled outright, by an autocratic government with a long history of human rights abuse.
The better news: There’s still time to act, but it’s urgent.
If China remains the leading purveyor of 5G technology, they can dominate the development of standards that drive the technology and control much of the manufacturing supporting 6G. China is building a “severable internet,” where countries are sovereign in their own cyberspace. If China can proliferate this digital authoritarian model, other countries can adopt it — or worse, outsource it to China — and we could see a rapid expansion of a “Digital Iron Curtain,” heavily segregated by geopolitics.
Then there’s the economics of it all — 6G is expected to be a multi-trillion-dollar business by 2035. And as part of China-based Huawei’s meteoric rise over the past 15 years, it is leading the world’s 5G infrastructure market, empowering the Chinese government with an even greater ability for economic coercion worldwide.
Exactly what 6G will be is still speculative, from hundreds of movie downloads within a second, to sensory interfaces in smart glasses that seem just like real life, to wired networks becoming obsolete with information traveling instantly across swarms of mobile device antennas.
But the bottom line is that 6G holds the promise — and threat — of “everything connected all the time” that prior generations of mobile technology have not delivered.
While the United States has its share of problems with disinformation, at our core we recognize that the free flow of knowledge has tremendous power to uplift a population. In contrast, the Chinese government uses advanced information technology to monitor and govern human behavior.
So, what to do about it? Here’s a shortlist:
Keep our foot on 5G’s accelerator. The United States has invested billions to accelerate the deployment of 5G technology just to play catchup. While we’re starting to experience the benefits of increased speed across the country, we haven’t achieved true groundbreaking benefits of 5G. The National Telecommunications and Information Administration, Department of Defense, and Department of Homeland Security are working hard to increase the pace for 5G. We encourage doubling down on efforts to maximize opportunities for U.S. industry to compete. Expansion of 5G development akin to Defense’s efforts and engaging other critical sectors such as industrial automation, connected/autonomous vehicles, and smart agriculture would represent game-changing investments in our industrial base.
Commit to massive government investment in the communications infrastructure. To construct 6G, the underlying foundation must be strong, extensible, scalable, and secure. The administration’s push to significantly invest in broadband infrastructure across the United States is crucial. This investment will position the United States to lead 6G while also addressing the digital divide of broadband “haves” and “have nots.” Given that 6G will underpin many other advancements such as our power grid, telemedicine, and industrial automation, we must invest now if we are to ever see such advancements come to fruition.
Focus on foundational research and development. For 6G to come to fruition, we’ll need to advance numerous supporting capabilities that don’t fit neatly under our private sector investment structure. For instance, truly ubiquitous connectivity to virtually all Americans will never emerge if we don’t make major advances in spectrum sharing of the airwaves. This kind of research and development is difficult for private companies to monetize — so government must drive research and support private efforts.
Develop the workforce. 6G will require a workforce with far broader skills than in the past. This workforce will span virtually all engineering disciplines, such as information technology, software, microelectronics, semiconductors, artificial intelligence, and climatology, just to name a few. To succeed, we need to invest dramatically in our own population, from K-12 and beyond. And rather than educating foreign students only to see them leave, the United States must incentivize them — often their nation’s best and brightest — to stay.
Lower barriers to entry, support industry transformation, and defray underlying engineering costs. In high tech, the capital costs to start a new business can be extraordinarily high. For example, to develop a new 5G sensor, gaining access to a 5G testbed can be prohibitively expensive. One solution is to create a nationwide support network across the 5G ecosystem — so entrepreneurs can focus their investments on their core businesses, rather than wasting money and effort duplicating common underlying costs. Such an investment will reap dividends straight into 6G.
Clearly, getting ready for 6G is a large, complex task. But the stakes are high. If our adversaries take the lead in shaping the next evolution of communications technology, the global impact will be severe and incredibly difficult to reverse.
Recognizing that 6G leadership is in our national interest, we must take steps now to ensure that next‑generation technologies are developed around principles that embrace human rights, such as privacy, and prevent authoritarian regimes from using technology to repress and manipulate citizens.
And that means the United States and our allies must take the lead in 6G now, while we still can.
Andrew Thiessen recently joined MITRE to head 5G/xG engagement. Previously, he was with the National Telecommunications and Information Administration, where he was the division chief for the Institute for Telecommunication Sciences leading 5G research, development, and standards.
Samuel S. Visner is a Technical Fellow and former director of the federally funded national cybersecurity research and development center at MITRE. He is also a professor of cybersecurity at Georgetown University.