America Is Its Own Worst Enemy on 5G Rollout

America Is Its Own Worst Enemy on 5G Rollout
(AP Photo/Andrew Harnik, Pool)
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As the Trump administration continues to mount charges against China-based Huawei and ByteDance’s TikTok, a recent Morning Consult survey showed that over half of U.S. adults said they saw China as a “major threat” to America’s technology and innovation dominance.

China is pushing ahead of the U.S. to develop and deploy several next-generation technologies, most notably 5G, which would generate trillions of dollars in economic output from medical innovations, autonomous vehicles, and streamlined manufacturing in the coming years.

The U.S. has moved to prevent scores of Chinese social media, artificial intelligence, and telecommunications companies from operating in the U.S. in the wake of the passage of China’s 2017 National Security Law and allegations of intellectual property theft.

At best, these moves against China will buy the U.S. extra time to catch up in the so-called “race” for 5G. Right now, America is absolutely not making good use of that time.

The federal government and companies are in a tug-of-war to agree on standards. Auctions of spectrum are not going quickly or smoothly. Several federal agencies seem more concerned with protecting their parochial interest than promoting the national interest. These agencies often paint an apocalyptic picture whenever faced with the prospect of allocating spectrum for commercial 5G use.

When the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) wanted to conduct its 24 GHz spectrum auction in the summer of 2019, it faced immediate pushback from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). NOAA’s administrator warned members of Congress 5G that allowing the 24 GHz spectrum to be used for commercial 5G could interfere with weather forecasting, which uses an adjacent band, and reduce the accuracy of weather forecasting by 30%.

Similarly, after the FCC granted applications to roll out a low-power nationwide broadband network, the Department of Defense and 12 other federal agencies publicly opposed the proposal, arguing that the move could cripple GPS networks.

In China, 5G has largely been rolled out using mid-band spectrum, the so-called “Goldilocks of spectrum,” because of its wide transmission distances and fast speeds. As a result, 5G in China requires significantly less network infrastructure—a single cellular tower in China can cover the same radius as 100 high-speed American towers.

In America, Sprint is the only commercial network operator with rights to a significant chunk of U.S. mid-band spectrum. Since the 1960s, most U.S. mid-band frequencies have been divided among various government agencies, with the bulk going to the U.S. Department of Defense, which uses the airwaves for military communications and research.

However, many of the frequencies are going unused, driving up the cost of spectrum and blocking 5G rollout. While the Pentagon recently agreed to release 100 megahertz of contiguous mid-band spectrum for commercial 5G purposes, the auction has yet to take place.

Amid these roadblocks to 5G deployment, many Democrats and Republicans in Congress are starting to recognize that America needs a course correction. In 2019, a bipartisan group of senators from the committees on Foreign Relations, Homeland Security, Intelligence, and Armed Services expressed concern with a lack of a “coherent national strategy” on 5G. In a letter to the White House, they wrote that America “cannot rely exclusively on defensive measures to solve or mitigate the issue, but rather we must shape the future of advanced telecommunications technology… through a sustained effort over the course of decades, not months."

Amid the COVID pandemic and a heated presidential election, this may seem like the kind of effort beyond U.S. capacity right now. But the clock is ticking on global economic leadership in the 21st century. 5G is expected to add $2.2 trillion to the global economy over the next 15 years, roughly 5.3% of gross world product growth.

Sooner rather than later, American needs its president and Congress to focus less on fighting one another and more on fighting to ensure the United States leads the next generation of technological innovation.

Olive Morris is a policy analyst with The New Center. She is the author of The New Center’s “America’s 5G Moment of Truth.”

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