America’s embarrassing 5G rollout highlights tech policy shortcomings

“It wasn’t our finest hour, I think, as a country,” said Doug Parker, the CEO of American Airlines, following the latest shambolic showdown between airlines, telecoms and their regulators over the rollout of 5G service and the risk to aviation safety. 

Certainly, Parker’s viewpoint is driven from his perspective of running an airline, but the broader point is made. At a time when we increasingly agree that we are in competition with other great powers, how can we not act with urgency to not only fix problems that slow innovation and stifle growth but also to demonstrate that democracies can respond competently to modern challenges? If we’re “hitting the gas” in a global race for leadership, let’s not also keep Washington’s foot on the brake.  

The botched 5G rollout illustrates the need for better coordination of the various stakeholders involved in the deployment of advanced technologies and the role government plays in addressing various trade-offs. In this case, the FCC’s bold vision and $80-plus billion in spectrum fees paid by AT&T and Verizon sped the rollout of 5G wireless networks that will transform our connectivity. At the same time, the FAA has an understandable responsibility for continuing to make U.S. skies the safest in the world.  

Yet, while warnings about 5G were made years ago, by both aircraft companies and international regulators, it took the actual deployment of the networks to force action. Threats of chaos in U.S. skies and the cancelation of flights were a stark contrast to the lack of any such issue in the other international airspaces where 5G networks operate.  

While airlines are loath to shoulder additional costs to shield planes and telecoms are eager to turn on the networks for which they paid billions, why was there not the proactive leadership and coordination to address this? Why was there no real-world or laboratory testing to answer the scientific questions? How was this not discussed when the airlines were receiving billions in taxpayer dollars during the pandemic? 

Sure, I’m asking these questions in hindsight, but the answers can inform policy being made now. The Biden administration and Congress align on policies focused on innovation leadership and securing supply chains. As they consider these proposals, they should consider too how these new programs and authorities related to innovation and research and development can move rapidly to build public-private partnerships and better coordinate discussions surrounding advanced technologies. The fact that the 5G rollout almost precipitated such a crisis suggests a problem, but we have to embrace the opportunity to fix it.  

Multiple areas of technology and innovation leadership are critical for our future economic prosperity and national security. For example, we still need more real-world testing for future 5G technologies, and both our friends and competitors are moving ahead on strategy for 6G. Similar investments and policy coordination are needed for the future of technologies from artificial intelligence to biotech, quantum computing to critical minerals. Doing so is not an invitation to mimic China’s system and its blurred lines between government and business, but to demonstrate that ours can also address the policymaking challenges and opportunities presented by technological innovation.  

While we do not need, and should never want, industry responding solely to Washington instead of the marketplace, future-proofing our country will require coordination between policymakers and the private sector. Coordinating technology policy and real-world deployment in Washington is part of a larger challenge including R&D support, patent policies and the shape of the future workforce. None of these can be addressed solely by the government or the private sector, nor will we find the right answers when communication breaks down between them.  

Broken policymaking and counterproductive policies can often be solved, but the time and effort to do so are not a luxury that we have. With a global competition underway, competence matters. The U.S. has long been seen as a leader, but bureaucratic breakdowns and unforced errors in policymaking will drag us back as we need to push forward.   

Dan Mahaffee is the senior vice president & director of Policy at the Center for the Study of the Presidency & Congress, where he leads its Geotech program. 

Tags 5G 5G rollout Mobile telecommunications Technology Technology forecasting
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