By Tom Wheeler
September 28 will see a White House rally to promote U.S. leadership in fifth generation (5G) wireless technology. I was part of a similar event at the Clinton White House in 1993 that promoted the importance of making more spectrum available through auctions that were then being considered by Congress. This time around, it looks like the messaging will be around the “5G race” between the United States and China.
CTIA—The Wireless Industry Association warns the U.S. is in third place behind China and South Korea when it comes to 5G. The so-called “5G gap” has become the go-to rationale for all kinds of industry-sought policy changes. Judging by how the issue is framed, the U.S. is on the verge of losing the “5G race” to China.
T-Mobile and Sprint warn that the U.S. will lose the 5G race if the companies are not allowed to merge (while announcing their own non-merged 5G deployment plans). The Trump Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has used the race to justify extending Washington’s regulatory reach down to telling local governments how to do zoning for antenna siting (this from the “deregulatory” administration). Satellite operators such as Intelsat, whose C-Band transmission business has atrophied, have discovered they can recast their licenses as “5G spectrum”. The satellite companies are asking the Trump FCC for permission to conduct a private auction that would allow them to reap a potential monetary windfall instead of U.S. taxpayers.
There is no doubt that 5G is an important step forward for wireless technology that will benefit consumers and drive economic growth. However, it is time to take a deep breath and let logic temper emotional battle cries and political gamesmanship. We need to spend less time worrying about China and more time asking how we can we race to make 5G work for all Americans.
Legacy of the Obama FCC
The first thing to know about 5G is that the Obama FCC made the United States the first nation in the world to set aside high-band millimeter wave spectrum for 5G applications. Verizon has announced it will roll out 5G in four cities the week after the White House event. Not to be outdone, AT&T has announced 12 cities this year. Even if it doesn’t merge with Sprint, T-Mobile has announced 30 cities this year. Sprint says it will build 5G in six cities in the first half of 2019. All the 2018 rollouts would not be possible without the millimeter wave allocation and the 600 MHz auction by the Obama FCC. This probably won’t be a messaging point at the Trump White House event, however.
The transition to a new generation of technology is not a clear-cut process. You don’t wake up one day and flip a switch to go from one generation to another; the generations are evolutionary, not something that springs fully formed. The fourth generation (4G) technology rolled out over multiple years and the technology continuously improved along the way. In fact, Today’s 4G iteration—4G LTE—delivers speeds and latency that begin to approach 5G expectations.
“If the U.S. hadn’t led the way in 4G, the country might not dominate mobile technology, and its platforms, such as Instagram, Snapchat, and perhaps even Facebook and Netflix might not have become global powers,” The Wall Street Journal recently opined in the article “Why Being First in 5G Matters.” The problem with that representation is that the United States was not the first to market with 4G—or 3G, or 2G, or 1G for that matter.
The U.S. was not even the first to have today’s iteration, 4G LTE. That honor went to Sweden, where LTE service began in December 2009 in Stockholm and Oslo. The major U.S. wireless companies started their LTE rollouts from 2010 to 2013.
But the U.S. is nonetheless the world leader in the chips, operating systems, and software applications that run on 4G. Then world is also using American 5G technology. “Experts inside and outside of China expect Qualcomm and other Western firms to end up with a majority of the essential patents” for 5G, a different article in The Wall Street Journal reported.
The true national leadership challenge for 5G is less a “race” than whether its benefits will be available to all Americans. Ubiquitous 5G is a national cause worth fighting for—but it will require more than industry and government lip service. The 5G deployments announced thus far are in urban and suburban areas. Large parts of rural America are still waiting for 4G LTE, despite government subsidies to companies to encourage such expansion.
Serving all Americans
So, what are the policies necessary for every American to have these wondrous 5G capabilities? There are ways for industry and government to work together to serve all Americans—but they are harder and require something more than simply shouting about a 5G “race.”
The Trump Administration reportedly considered building a single nationalized 5G network in order to get the fastest nationwide deployment. Nationalization is a bad idea, but the concept of having to build only one network rather than multiple redundant capital intensive networks does make sense. One such private “network of networks” was built in the early days of the wireless industry as competitors sought to preserve scarce capital. Subscribers bought a specific company’s service and had no idea they were using a shared network. This is something that the White House and the industry could work on together if they are sincerely worried about 5G leadership, and not just as a political battle cry.
The advent of 5G wireless will be an important continuation of the marriage of computers and communication. It will create new services, spur innovation, and stimulate economic growth. The future will belong to 5G—which is why it should belong to all Americans.
Let’s stop using the so-called “5G race” as a tool to ride roughshod over maintaining competitive markets, local self-determination, or as a get-rich-quick scheme for spectrum licensees. The U.S. has the technical leadership. The U.S. has the early 5G buildouts in major cities. What’s missing is a race to deliver 5G to all Americans. To accomplish universal 5G we must replace expedient political battle cries with creative thinking by both government and industry to maximize scarce capital, maintain competition, and deliver the promise of high-speed, low latency 5G service to every American.
Read more: webfeeds.brookings.edu