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The buzz about super-fast 5G wireless service has been building in the U.S. for years. The next White House now stands poised to deliver — at a time when U.S. rivals are also scrambling to light up this next-gen cellular service.
Right now, most Americans have never experienced the eye-popping speeds that big wireless carriers have spent years hyping, promising service that is 100 times faster than 4G speeds. Apple just unveiled its first 5G-capable iPhones in time for holiday shopping. But while CEO Tim Cook played up the big speeds as he stood alongside Verizon CEO Hans Vestberg, the new iPhone's reviews already state the obvious: 5G isn’t the real selling point.
U.S. carriers don’t have the right airwaves or network architecture to really allow for widespread, robust 5G use just yet, which will be a pressing challenge for whoever occupies the White House — especially as China bursts into the lead in the so-called race to 5G.
“China has cemented its position as a global leader in 5G,” wireless trade group GSMA recently declared, noting that China likely accounts for 70 percent of global 5G connections this year.
Joe Biden may be positioned to change that, should the Democrat win the White House, picking up where President Donald Trump left off. Even in divided government, 5G could prove a source of rare bipartisan unity.
Countries that adopt the technology more quickly could have a first-mover advantage, spurring on related efforts in artificial intelligence, connected-car technology and more.
And during a pandemic year where millions stayed home and embraced Zoom happy hours, connectivity has never seemed more vital. Trump economic adviser Larry Kudlow dismisses “pessimistic” assessments, reassuring wireless officials last month that the U.S. is doing just fine. But that comes in stark contrast to warnings from others like former Google CEO Eric Schmidt, who recently claimed a “national emergency” over China’s 5G dominance.
So what are the major 5G challenges facing the next president?
Speeding up 5G so it feels like 5G
Right now, the major U.S. carriers are largely offering very limited 5G service, using lower-band frequencies that offer speeds not much beyond 4G.
That could change under the new administration. Trump will conclude his current term with a gift to wireless carriers: a high-profile government auction of so-called C-band airwaves, which starts Dec. 8 and will let carriers substantially speed up their 5G offerings.
The Pentagon also holds a massive chunk of 5G-friendly airwaves. Carriers hope to buy some of this spectrum at another government sale in December of 2021. Others including former House Speaker Newt Gingrich and Schmidt want greater government intervention to get this military spectrum out sooner.
Grappling with Huawei
Trump spent much of his past term trying to dissuade U.S. allies from letting Chinese telecom giant Huawei build 5G networks in their countries. And despite some skepticism, Trump’s efforts seem to have paid off in a number of European countries, Australia and elsewhere.
It’s a national security imperative, per U.S. officials, who fear the Beijing’s government could use the Huawei gear to spy or steal technology.
The incoming administration will have to find ways to either articulate an alternative to Huawei or find ways to mitigate the risks, not to mention address the outstanding issue of such Chinese gear in U.S. networks.
Although major U.S. carriers don’t use this equipment, several dozen rural wireless providers loaded up their networks years earlier with gear from Huawei and ZTE, another Chinese titan. U.S. officials have proposed subsidizing the rip and replacement of this equipment, but the government hasn’t appropriated the necessary hundreds of millions of dollars.
Recent FCC rules, meanwhile, are cutting these American companies off from U.S. telecom subsidies as long as the gear remains. “Funding delays are creating serious issues for some of these carriers, which face potentially significant expenses with no relief in sight,” Democratic Commissioner Geoffrey Starks warned during a recent speech.
Changing how 5G networks are built
The incoming administration has a chance to shake up how telecom infrastructure is built, opening what’s known as the “radio access network” to create a wider array of competition among tech and telecom players. That could reduce U.S. reliance on 5G network hardware purveyed by overseas companies like Huawei and Europe’s Nokia and Ericsson.
One idea gaining steam on the Hill this year: Have the government spend hundreds of millions on grants to help spur on some of these new network-building ideas. That aligns with the Biden campaign agenda, which floated billions for R&D funding with 5G among its priorities.
Globally, this could provide a welcome disruption. “I don't think anything changed in telecom for the past 30 years,” said Tareq Amin, chief technology officer for Rakuten Mobile, a company trying to pioneer this new type of 5G building in Japan.
Dish Network, a satellite company now planning a nationwide 5G network in the U.S., says it will use some of these new software-based ideas, which many see as a promising sign to watch.
And do we have enough workers to build these networks?
Not according to the telecom industry, which has long urged the government to promote training programs to ensure there are enough skilled workers to build the physical networks for 5G, which consist of towers, antennas and other technical devices.
Amid the widespread job losses caused by the coronavirus pandemic, “you can find people, but they don’t have the right skills,” Jonathan Adelstein, head of the Wireless Infrastructure Association, told POLITICO, urging more government-backed apprenticeship efforts.
The Labor Department placed the issue on its radar in the past year, and pressure will remain high going into the next term. The U.S. has built more than 87,000 5G cell sites so far but for true nationwide coverage, the wireless industry predicts many hundreds of thousands are going to be needed.