IBM famously gave young entrepreneur Bill Gates an incredible windfall back in 1980, when the company allowed Microsoft to license its DOS operating system to other computer manufacturers.
IBM believed the value was in the hardware, not the software — and this mistake became legendary. And the mistake is probably at least partially behind today’s dangerously bankrupt argument that as long as the United States creates technology, standards, and software, it doesn't matter who builds the hardware.
This viewpoint is one of several reasons that the United States for decades has been losing out on deep tech innovation such as quantum, artificial intelligence, telecommunications, semiconductors, biotech, and advanced manufacturing. And it’s also one of the reasons China has taken the lead in 5G hardware and global deployment.
The world follows whichever country leads the deployment of a new technology. The Chinese telecom giant Huawei has amassed an ever-increasing share of the world’s 5G infrastructure. The Chinese government has long seen the importance of gaining global power and influence through economic and technological dominance. Control of the hardware is part of their growth. As the rest of the world continues to buy Chinese hardware, over time, the world will buy its software as well.
Are we going to let the same thing happen with 6G? If so, not only will we lose out on jobs and economic growth, but we’ll also put our businesses, and our country, at greater risk. It’s easy to imagine a major cyberattack on critical infrastructure, but an even more prosaic approach can be just as devastating — cutting supply lines.
This type of supply chain risk was clear during the pandemic, when we saw how dependent we were upon China and other countries for masks and ventilators. The United States, the country whose massive manufacturing capabilities were critical to winning World War II, was flummoxed.
Consider the potential impact on transportation alone. If we continue on our current path, in a relatively short time our autonomous vehicles — including trucking of goods across the United States — may become dependent upon Chinese-built hardware and software.
What if China decides to stop delivering parts to 6G hardware? What will we do? What will other countries do?
We must decide now if we are prepared to let this happen with 6G. Although each new generation of mobile technology takes about 10 years to develop and deploy, research into 6G is already underway. With the accelerating pace of each generation, 6G commercial deployments could come as early as 2028 or 2029.
Given some of the challenges in front of us, such as changes ahead in clean energy, electric vehicle manufacturing and infrastructure, and more, we need to figure out how to keep more of those jobs within the United States.
Here’s what I recommend we do — now — to position the United States to take full advantage of 6G for manufacturing:
- Let’s get rid of our allergy to “industrial strategy.” Technology policy expert Robert Atkinson makes a compelling case for the need to develop and implement a national industrial strategy to reassert American leadership. He points out that the “magic of the market” does not always serve the national interest; the government does stimulate important technological developments and has backed several technology winners in materials science, computing, aviation, and other fields.
- Take steps to reinvigorate homegrown development of technology talent, while making our country more attractive for the world’s best minds. After all, with only five percent of the world’s population, the United States cannot claim that every smart person we need was born here. The Center for Strategic and International Studies’ Michael Savvidas makes a compelling case for a human-centric strategy for 6G, while noting the continued rise in the rejection rate of H1-B visas.
- Redouble efforts to fund 6G research and development, including ways to make U.S. manufacturing more efficient and profitable. We need industrial capacity for all aspects of 6G, including hardware, just as we need it to build our Navy’s submarines. If necessary, the U.S. government should consider the economic incentives and support required to create and sustain that industrial capacity.
As we look ahead to the potential of 6G, we need to think far beyond fast internet service and amazing virtual reality.
6G will help us reverse our current weakness in deep tech innovation, plus avoid the supply chain risk outlined above. It will empower an entirely new level of rapid prototyping, computer-aided design, and manufacturing, and enable us to move quickly in an emergency to bypass supply chain risk. For instance, even if manufacturers decide it’s ultimately more cost-effective to build ventilators overseas, 6G should dramatically improve our ability to turn around critical parts in volume in a matter of days.
We need to think about manufacturing and how 6G can help us turn around the major gaps we’ve allowed China to fill ever since the idea that “hardware really doesn’t matter” became part of our business mindset.
The good news is we have tremendous manufacturing opportunities ahead. We must plan now for employing 6G to help solve many of our current economic, workforce, climate, and national security challenges — and prevent grave new problems from becoming a reality.
Let’s move now to take the lead in 6G.
Samuel S. Visner is a Technical Fellow and former director of the national cybersecurity federally funded research and development center at MITRE. He is also a professor of cybersecurity at Georgetown University.