Wednesday, December 18, 2019


Ancient China made achievements that would have made medieval Europe blush. Chinese shipwrights made vessels 10 times bigger than Columbus’ Santa Maria and were sailing to Africa decades before he was even born. But China failed to spread colonial power the way Europe did. Why?

The fault lies with an embedded ruling class that didn’t want to cede its power to a rising generation of nouveau riche merchants. So “The emperors of China, worried about threats to their power from merchants, banned oceangoing voyages in 1430,” wrote Nobel Prize-winning economist Angus Deaton.

It looks like a similar thing is going to happen in 2020, but this time China could win.

The future of digital technology is 5G. It promises unfathomable improvements that will vastly expand the Internet of Things — connecting billions of machines. It will require significant investments in new wireless infrastructure that allow for speeds about 100 times faster than 4G.

But what could hold this 21st century wonder back, however, isn’t some out-of-reach technology, but rather, crony capitalists and government bureaucracy.

America’s 5G future is dependent upon spectrum — the invisible airwaves that power our mobile devices and so much more — a limited resource controlled by the Federal Communications Commission. A recent fight over how an important band of spectrum known as the C-Band should be auctioned threatens America’s ability to stay ahead of China in the race to 5G because FCC Chairman Ajit Pai decided to let the government auction the spectrum instead of private sales. Mr. Pai’s legacy and America’s 5G leadership now hang in the balance.

The C-band — 500 megahertz of prime, mid-band spectrum — is particularly precious because it can penetrate solid objects (like buildings) and cover long distances — making it the “Goldilocks” of spectrum. It’s also central to the global 5G harmonization as China and other countries have already begun deploying 5G in this spectrum. But this valuable C-band spectrum, which currently sits with satellite companies that want to give up a large portion of it, could get boondoggled in a bureaucratic logjam for years to come.

Mr. Pai recently affirmed his commitment to a timely auction that will begin in 2020, but many observers fear a long delay is inevitable.

Cable companies are running interference, having (somehow) managed to convince some in Washington that their monopolies won’t succeed without heavy-handed government assistance. They’re scared that more spectrum for 5G will make wireless Internet a better alternative to cable’s product and seriously cut into their business. Their lobbyists have been whispering to Congress to slow walk 5G regardless of the devastating consequences of delay.

The longer we wait, the further ahead China will get in the race to 5G. In a recent FCC oversight hearing, FCC Commissioner Michael O’Reilly stressed the importance of freeing up this spectrum and conducting an auction as quickly as possible. Mr. O’Reilly noted that many other countries, including China, have already done this, posing national security threats to the U.S. if the FCC fails to move quickly on auctioning the spectrum.

To hold Mr. Pai’s feet to the fire, Republican Sens. Roger Wicker of Mississippi Republican and John Thune of South Dakota introduced legislation that recently passed at the committee level requiring the FCC to hold a public auction before the end of next year. The full Senate should pass this bill without delay.

5G is the Manhattan Project of the cold war between Washington and Beijing. As Wired Magazine reported, “Technical standards for the next generation of wireless services aren’t even finalized, yet the US and China are already locked in a crucial race to be the first country to deploy a so-called 5G network.” Uncle Sam can’t drag his feet any longer when the Chinese tiger is racing ahead on 5G at full speed.

China is unrestrained by the democratic, public, open, egalitarian constraints that shackle American government. Xi Jinping doesn’t have to worry about jumping over political or bureaucratic hurdles to release spectrum for 5G. The Chinese government is doing everything it can to win the race to 5G and we must react aggressively. 

China lost the colonial era to the West. Now, China’s aggressive leadership wants to finally pull ahead in the global balance sheet. Absolutely nobody else wants to see this happen, and a simple way to curtail it is for the U.S. to win the battle of 5G. The FCC must reject crony capitalists and hold the public C-band auction next year. 

• Jared Whitley has worked in the U.S. Senate, the White House and the defense industry.

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