A 'Sputnik Crisis' for Today

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When the Soviet Union launched Sputnik into orbit in 1957, the first satellite generated an existential panic across the United States. Scientist Edward Teller said it was “a greater defeat for our country than Pearl Harbor.” Sen. Mike Mansfield said, “What is at stake is nothing less than our survival.”

At that time, the United States was only four months away from launching a satellite of our own. When the Soviet Union put a man in space a few years later, the United States was right behind them and ready to snatch the lead in the race to the moon.

Today, the United States is for the first time in the modern era potentially a decade behind in deploying a transformative technology with serious national security implications. China is establishing dominance in 5G — fifth-generation wireless technology for digital cellular networks — in global markets with massive subsidies for its national champions, telecom giants Huawei and ZTE.

While China is poised to snap up the lion’s share of the world 5G market and is expected to have 100 million 5G users by the end of this year, the United States has only deployed 5G to urban hotspots. In all, China has deployed 10 times more 5G base stations than the United States.

The fifth generation of wireless technology is not another improvement in wireless service. It is a transformative leap, much like the invention of the Internet itself. This because 5G’s latency, or delay, makes it virtually instantaneous. Such speed will enable a host of new technologies — from smart homes to smart farms and smart highways.

Add to that smart armies, smart navies and smart air forces.

Ellen Lord, undersecretary of defense for acquisition and sustainment, declared that 5G is “foundational for new military capabilities, such as robotics, artificial intelligence, quantum computing, and a number of advanced sensing devices.” 5G’s higher speed and greater reliability will increase “overall warfighting capability and lethality.”

U.S. military planners are also concerned about China’s dominance because it will allow that communist dictatorship to set global standards in 5G, which will determine the shape of 5G networks and how they will be governed. If China owns the market, China will set the rules.

American leaders are appropriately alarmed and responding to the threat. President Trump called on U.S. industry to create a national, stand-alone 5G network by 2024. Federal Communications Commission Chairman Ajit Pai is backing a draft proposal to open a portion of the C-band midband spectrum for 5G use. Despite the bold vision of these leaders, it would still take our country a decade to build the needed network of 400,000 5G base stations to create a nationwide 5G network comparable to what China will have by year’s end.

Fortunately, there is a ready solution to competing with China in 5G. If Washington were to allow the combination of the L-band with C-band, we would need far fewer new cell towers. 5G could be deployed 18 months after the needed spectrum is cleared.

But this obvious solution is currently on hold. A small number of highly influential bureaucrats are quietly lobbying from within the government to reject the inclusion of L-band on the theory that it would degrade the performance of the Global Positioning System (GPS), harming a host of consumer, commercial, and military applications of this technology.

This claim makes no sense. Over 5,000 hours of testing, including a three-month long test co-sponsored by the Department of Defense, confirmed that there is no harmful interference for GPS from L-band.

Why, then, does L-band elicit such a vehement reaction among Washington bureaucrats? In today’s hyper politicized environment, any change of any significance attracts immediate opposition, almost as a matter of sport. In Washington’s game of gridlock, even urgently needed changes are easily blackballed.

While Sputnik was not another Pearl Harbor, the loss of 5G leadership could be. Too much is on the line to allow petty, internecine bureaucratic politics stymie our ability to move forward.

Mari K. Eder is a retired Major General of the United States Army.

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