To compete with China in 5G, America must solve its spectrum problem

The next generation of wireless network, 5G, has arrived and is being rolled out around the world, including in communities across the United States. As demonstrated by the fierce competition from Huawei — the Chinese telecom-equipment giant that is leading China’s 5G effort and has been a pernicious security threat — the U.S. lead in this critical technology is not guaranteed.

Today only eight countries have been willing to join the American ban on Huawei’s 5G equipment, compared to the 90-plus countries that have signed up with Huawei, including NATO members Hungary, Iceland, the Netherlands and Turkey, as well as Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE). A principal reason why the United States has had trouble persuading countries not to use the Chinese telecom giant is that we have not offered a viable American alternative.  

Washington must establish a 5G architecture that recognizes the need for stable usage of spectrum across industries, expands wireless coverage to the entirety of the United States (including rural areas), and encourages the domestic production of key components such as semiconductors, while also protecting the privacy and security of its users. Above all, that architecture must cover a wide range of spectrum options, from high-end, very short wavelength (24-100gHz), to mid-band and low band (less than 1 gHz), including the C Band and sub-3 gHz spectrum where China and Huawei have staked their claim to 5G dominance.  

In short, how the U.S. approaches access to the spectrum required to operate successful 5G networks will do much to determine the ultimate outcome of this technological competition with China.

The economic case for embracing the 5G revolution is clear. The growth of wireless connectivity has produced real economic gains, far beyond simply the telecommunications sector. The wireless industry supports over 4.7 million jobs and contributes over $475 billion to the economy each year. Analysts project that increased 5G deployment will add $1.4 trillion to the GDP and create at least 3.8 million jobs in the next decade. 

Yet, one of the principal issues holding back U.S. dominance in this emerging field is a policy failure on the issue of spectrum. After much discussion and analyses across the U.S. government, the verdict is in: Operating a wireless communications system in different bands avoids conflict with other systems, provides maximum effectiveness to 5G networks, and provides the best balance to support further innovation in a sector where the United States must remain predominant. 

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has decided to make spectrum available across the high, mid, and low bands. With many countries limiting the use of spectrum for 5G, the FCC has taken steps to provide the U.S. wireless industry with both high- and mid-band spectrum and determined that the regulated use of existing low-band spectrum would not interfere with legacy systems such as GPS. 

Additionally, the FCC recently voted unanimously to make the 6 GHz band available for unlicensed use, opening up 1,200 megahertz of spectrum. This decision will help increase connectivity at a time when we need it most, especially in rural areas that have been particularly hard-hit by a lack of connectivity during the pandemic. Given the intense demand for spectrum, policymakers should not shy away from encouraging government spectrum users to share their resources. As FCC Commissioner Michael O’Reilly recently observed, the United States needs significant quantities of spectrum to lead the world in 5G. With the federal government owning substantial amounts of spectrum, we must be creative in expanding access to the bandwidth needed to bring 5G to consumers and innovators.

At the same time, sharing spectrum will require protecting data and networks from unwarranted intrusion and attack, including future large-scale quantum computer attacks. Quantum-safe encryption of data and networks must also be part of an American-led 5G effort — which also will enhance competitiveness with companies such as Huawei. 

The U.S. cannot afford to wait while others, especially the Chinese Communist Party, determine international policy on telecommunications technology. 

A 5G architecture that utilizes low-band spectrum to ensure fast and reliable connectivity for those in rural or isolated areas and higher-band spectrum to boost productivity; maintains consistent real-time data between those who need it most, from first responders to hospitals to ports and commercial trucking companies; and protects private and public data and networks from malicious intruders by introducing reliable, durable encryption solutions, will ensure that the U.S. regains the lead in the future of wireless technology — and, with it, the future of the global economy. 

Ambassador (Ret.) Robert C. O’Brien is the co-founder and chairman of American Global Strategies. He was the 28th U.S. national security adviser from 2019-2021.

Arthur Herman is a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute, and co-chair of Hudson’s Alexander Hamilton Commission on Preserving Our Defense Innovation Base. He is the author of “Freedom’s Forge: How American Business Produced Victory in World War II.”

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