Too often hyper-partisanship and political dysfunction in Washington, D.C. act as a drag on our nation’s ability to unite to confront major challenges. Yet in two promising areas a rare bipartisan consensus has recently emerged on Capitol Hill: the imperative of empowering U.S. leadership and innovation in the fierce competition with China over advanced technologies, and the key role infrastructure investments in areas such as high-speed digital connectivity play in that competition.
Fortunately, in strengthening our digital infrastructure at home and meeting the technological challenge from abroad, the United States has a successful playbook in the recent race to field fifth generation, or “5G,” mobile networks that are designed to connect virtually everyone and every electronic device, and are poised to change the way the world communicates.
Just a few years ago, China was so far ahead in deploying 5G networks that many experts believed the United States had already ceded the race. “China and other countries may be creating a 5G tsunami, making it near impossible [for America] to catch up,” analysts at the accounting firm Deloitte wrote. Analysts at Ernst & Young were equally blunt. “China is already in a leading role in the 5G development,” they wrote a few years ago, and “is poised to win the race to 5G.”
The math bore out those grim predictions. Excessive regulatory red tape meant that U.S. carriers were spending nearly three times as much as their counterparts in other countries to generate 5G network capacity. Between 2012 and 2016, the United States constructed on average three new cell sites a day when thousands are needed for 5G. At the time China was building roughly 460 new cell sites per day. As Federal Communications Commission (FCC) Commissioner Brendan Carr pointed out in a recent discussion hosted by the Center for the Study of the Presidency & Congress, “What it was taking us four years to do, China was doing every nine days.”
Fast forward to today. While the race for 5G leadership and onwards to 6G is far from over, the United States is now positioned to successfully compete thanks to measures that have empowered innovation, entrepreneurialism, and enterprise. Rather than trying to “be like China to beat China,” Carr noted, the FCC instead took steps to unleash America’s free enterprise mojo. The FCC thus moved to streamline approvals and cut the fees local governments levied on cell site construction. Freeing up spectrum across low-, mid-, and high-band frequencies allowed for U.S. carriers to innovate by using different frequencies and combinations of coverage.
Once again the numbers tell the tale. In 2019, with that more streamlined framework in place, U.S. carriers built over 46,000 new cell sites, a 65 fold increase. Meanwhile, internet speeds in the United States have more than tripled over the past four years, and more than 270 million Americans are now covered by 5G networks, helping to cut the digital divide separating the “haves” and “have nots” of this critical technology nearly in half.
In recent years both the Trump and Biden administrations have also taken a strong stand against reliance on Chinese companies such as Huawei and ZTE for 5G technology. Under China’s national intelligence law, these companies are legally required to conduct intelligence gathering when asked to by the Chinese Communist Party, which routinely engages in digital spying on dissidents, steals intellectual property, and hacks foreign governments and corporations.
With Huawei already having finalized more 5G contracts than any other telecom company, more still needs to be done to convince allies and partners of the serious risks of relying on Chinese firms for critical digital infrastructure. The Biden administration took a positive step in calling out Beijing’s digital transgressions when it recently rallied a broad and unprecedented group of allies — including the European Union and for the first time, the NATO alliance — to publicly condemn Beijing for malign activities in cyberspace that include hacking Microsoft email systems used by many governments and international corporations.
The good news is that the 5G race is afoot, and the United States is now in it to win it. That success offers clear lessons for the way forward. First, when it comes to infrastructure, we need to pair investments with streamlined deregulatory measures that ensure we are not, as Carr put it, “hitting the brake and the gas at the same time.” Thus unleashed, the American free enterprise system is more than a match for China’s centralized planning model and insistence on iron-gripped government control of the private sector.
The second lesson is that we must be clear-eyed about the geopolitical stakes in this technological competition. Washington, Brussels and Beijing are all jockeying for advantage in a commercial competition, but one informed by different core values and visions of the future. Those different world views should align the United States and its democratic allies closely as they confront Beijing’s authoritarianism and increasingly brazen challenges to the rules-based international order in Hong Kong, the Taiwan Straits and the South China Sea.
Put simply the stakes in this “geotech” competition could not be higher, and it is one that free societies cannot afford to lose.
Dan Mahaffee is senior vice president at the Center for the Study of the Presidency & Congress (CSPC). James Kitfield is a senior fellow at CSPC.