On the eve of the First World War, Winston Churchill, as First Lord of the Admiralty, made the fateful decision to convert the British Navy from coal burning to the vastly superior propulsion of oil-powered engines. A decade later, U.S. Army Gen. Billy Mitchell was demoted, then court-martialed, for his strenuous advocacy of air power and the need for the Navy to build aircraft carriers instead of more battleships.
Both Churchill and Mitchell weren’t for change for change’s sake.
They followed the results of empirical science to propose well thought-out conversions in order for their countries to be technologically prepared for the challenges of the near future.
President Trump faces a similar challenge in the 5G race with China.
With the singleness of purpose that only a one-party state can muster, China is moving briskly into the 5G future. China has allocated the spectrum it needs for 5G rollout and has built ten times the number of 5G towers than the United States.
By year’s end, China is projected to have 100 million 5G users. The income generated by this enormous internal market gives China the resources to subsidize the operations of its national champion, Huawei, to lock up world markets — all while dominating the global market share for 5G.
Meanwhile, in the United States, we lack the needed allocation of spectrum, have no domestic makers of 5G equipment, have only 30,000 5G specific towers, and 5G service is limited to hot spots in dense, urban areas.
No less than nautical propulsion or air power, the fifth generation of wireless technology promises to be deeply disruptive. It will be an enabling technology, one that will provide the ultrafast connections needed to supercharge artificial intelligence with almost-instant connections between networks of computers and a world of external data.
At stake is who will develop the exotic technologies of the near future, ranging from telesurgery, to self-regulating traffic, to deft control by the military of more lethal assets on land, sea, air and space.
President Trump and his team are alert to the critical need for 5G and its strategic importance to American economic success and national security. The president has issued a timeline for American business to use private-sector solutions with government backing to create a national, stand-alone 5G network by 2024.
The Federal Communications Commission (FCC), under Chairman Ajit Pai, is moving forward on a draft plan to auction 280MHz of critical 5G mid-band spectrum. This is a big leap forward that provides needed spectrum. However, this only covers the upper mid-band of the spectrum, or C-band.
As with the transition from coal to oil, or from battleships to aircraft carriers, however, even these actions won’t be enough to compete with China if we lack all the critical elements. The problem with C-band alone is that it would require the United States to build 400,000 5G towers — a task that would take a decade. With China poised to dominate world markets within a few years, that timeline is simply unacceptable.
Is there a way to jump start America’s 5G capability?
A pairing of C-band with lower mid-band spectrum known as L-band would create a superior solution, one that would require 80,000 5G towers, many of which already exist.
With the addition of L-band spectrum, the U.S. could get to 5G service for urban and rural areas within 18 months after this spectrum is cleared for use.
Any change will always generate opposition.
Both Churchill and Mitchell battled determined bureaucratic opposition from the status quo. As the FCC continues to make significant progress in positioning America to win 5G, the administration is being undermined by well-placed bureaucrats who are waging a whisper campaign against the inclusion of L-band for 5G, claiming it would interfere with GPS.
Proponents of L-band point to 5,000 hours of testing that validates that L-band can be used for 5G without degrading the performance of military and commercial systems. But the whisper campaign is about turf, not science.
For the moment, the inertia of the status quo is preventing the Trump administration from moving forward. In this moment of frustration lies a great opportunity. This is a moment of decision for President Trump, one that gives him a chance to stand with the great innovators of the past.
As key decisions loom in coming weeks, these bureaucrats must be moved out of the way to allow our country to catch up and lead in 5G. The alternative, a world where the communist, censorship-driven government of China dictates the technologies of the future, is unacceptable.
This is the moment for President Trump and Chairman Pai to cut through the gridlock and approve L-band for 5G.
Thus, will President Donald J. Trump be the Churchill of 5G?
Vinh Vuong is the chairman of Vuong Enterprises and President of NXT AI.
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