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We’re letting China win the 5G race. It’s time to catch up

The Honorable Henry M. Paulson, Jr.
 

England may have sparked the first industrial revolution with the steam engine, but its potential was realized in the United States. America led the second and third industrial revolutions — automobiles, computers and Internet — creating the foundation for U.S. economic superiority.

But today, with the advent of the fourth industrial revolution, the United States is falling behind.

While our universities and tech firms still lead in cutting-edge innovation — from artificial intelligence to 5G wireless technology — it is China that has deployed them. The United States is losing the commercialization race, a failure of our own making. We must urgently confront these shortcomings to make up for lost time and opportunity.

Powerful AI algorithms and machine learning techniques make everything faster and more efficient. If AI is the new “electricity,” then 5G is the transmission and distribution infrastructure needed to enable these technologies to perform optimally.

This new “digital highway” centered on 5G will give rise to new industries and services previously unimagined. The United States must redouble its efforts to build such a digital infrastructure and make the commercialization of the Internet of Things a reality.

That’s because big data and AI algorithms require blazing-fast networks to succeed. And the latest 5G mobile network will be 100 times faster than existing networks. Movies will take seven seconds to download instead of seven minutes. But more important will be the major efficiencies and disruptions across industries — from helping doctors perform remote surgery to processing images for driverless cars in real time. Any notable lag could mean the difference between life and death.

China is intent on realizing these goals. Beijing’s industrial policy and China’s private sector are racing to propel the commercialization of 5G and the technologies, products and services it enables, not only for China but also for nations around the world that would welcome Huawei 5G. Even China’s state-owned enterprises have deployed quickly. Meanwhile, Washington has stalled.

When it comes to major breakthroughs, we must figure out how to shorten the lag between innovation and commercialization. Scale deployment is required with 5G. Small boxes, or microcells, must be placed on telephone poles or lampposts to ensure robust network coverage, but U.S. firms face regulatory hurdles in this effort that their Chinese counterparts don’t.

Speed matters because deploying a reliable and secure 5G network quickly creates a first-mover advantage and results in the commercialization of myriad products and services. China could erect some 150,000 base stations by the end of the year, about 15 times what the United States will have.

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