It’s Time for Crucial U.S. Leadership on 5G

While Democrats are obsessing over impeachment, President Trump is busy making and keeping America great with the simple strategy of doing what he said he would do. From a robust economic agenda, to an historic number of judicial confirmations, to re-posturing America on trade, even the doubters grudgingly have to applaud the sheer magnitude of what this administration has been able to accomplish.

With 2020 underway, there is one more area that the Trump Administration must address: making America first in 5G, the technology which is likely to define the future of the Internet for the next decade.

While it may seem like just another bar on your cell phone, the jump to 5G promises to revolutionize what our devices are able to do. Download and upload speeds will rise exponentially, and the ability to connect devices to a single network, otherwise known as the “internet of things,” will become easier, cheaper, and—critically—require less battery charge. This will mean tremendous efficiencies for individual users, but also enable huge advances in network-connected industries, like autonomous vehicles.

The leap from 4G to 5G, in other words, promises to be one of the most significant shifts in computing since the advent of the smartphone.

But China is threatening to get there first. While the network technology arrived in the United States this year, it lacks significant infrastructure and has yet to be fully deployed. Parts of China, meanwhile, have been utilizing experimental 5G networks for over a year, including with autonomous vehicles.

The stakes of the race for supremacy over 5G cannot be overstated. Time magazine recently called this “the most consequential fight for global technology supremacy since the U.S. battled the Soviet Union to put a man on the moon.”

So why is the United States lagging behind?

The answer, in part, is due to how the government frees up spectrum—the invisible radio airwaves over which wireless communication signals travel—for commercial use. The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) is charged with regulating commercial spectrum and the communications networks that operate on them. And under Chairman Ajit Pai’s leadership, the FCC has been spearheading the administration’s push to lead the 5G race through an all-of-the-above approach to spectrum. Unfortunately, the FCC’s attempts to authorize or upgrade use of key mid-band spectrum to serve a robust next-generation network repeatedly have been met with resistance from other agencies, putting our 5G development at a serious deficit.

Federal agencies—the Department of Commerce, NASA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the Department of Energy, the Department of Education, the Department of Defense and the Department of Transportation—continuously have overstepped their role in spectrum decisions. Time and time again—1675-1680 MHz, 2.5 GHz, 3.1-3.55 GHz, 5.9 GHz, 6 GHz, 24 GHz, C-band, and L-band—these agencies have resisted change, often in a public fashion that is an overt attempt to challenge the FCC’s authority.

The constant and unrelenting challenges from agencies and those who seek to preserve the status quo is unprecedented. And as the U.S. struggles for a dominant role in creating the infrastructure that will drive our country and economy forward, the status of these proceedings matters now more than ever. Bold leadership is needed from the FCC.

Fortunately, FCC Chairman Ajit Pai seems to grasp the importance of leading in the race for 5G, and the bulldozing of bureaucratic barriers this might require. “History tells us that emerging technologies will evolve in ways that people don’t anticipate,” he said in a speech in Geneva last year. “There is often a strong temptation to regulate new technologies especially by forcing them into old frameworks.”

In that same speech, he cited “freeing up spectrum for wireless services and making it available for flexible use” as key to facilitating innovation. Earlier this month, Pai committed the FCC to ensuring “that our nation leads the way in 5G development.” A great first step would be to make a decision on the L-Band.

Chairman Pai’s tenure has already reflected fearless leadership, suggesting that he will not bend easily to the intimidation and demands of bureaucrats and bullying of special interests. But if the United States is to lead in this next generation of technology, Chairman Pai must exercise his authority or others will exercise it for him. Agencies will continue to take as much ground as they are given. There will always be those who fight to keep things the way they are. But if history teaches us anything, it is that innovation of this kind is well worth fighting for.

The Trump Administration has a long list of accomplishments following them into 2020. Ensuring American dominance for the Internet age will be a critical addition to that list. On that front, access to mid-band spectrum like the L-Band is a key front to taking back U.S. leadership. It’s time for the FCC to unlock this critical resource.

About Rachel Bovard

Rachel Bovard is senior director of policy at the Conservative Partnership Institute and Senior Advisor to the Internet Accountability Project. Beginning in 2006, she served in both the House and Senate in various roles including as legislative director for Senator Rand Paul (R-Ky.) and policy director for the Senate Steering Committee under the successive chairmanships of Senator Pat Toomey (R-Penn.) and Senator Mike Lee (R-Utah), where she advised Committee members on strategy related to floor procedure and policy matters. In the House, she worked as senior legislative assistant to Congressman Donald Manzullo (R-Il.), and Congressman Ted Poe (R-Texas). She is the former director of policy services for the Heritage Foundation. Follow her on Twitter at @RachelBovard.

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