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Wait, why the hell is the ‘race to 5G’ even a race?

Wait, why the hell is the ‘race to 5G’ even a race?


No one seems to have a good answer to this question

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Verizon 5G truck
Photo: Verizon

I have a dumb question that no one seems capable of answering directly: Why is 5G a race?

Everyone — the wireless industry, Democrats, Republicans, the major media, you name it — frames the building of next-generation 5G networks as a “race” in which the United States needs to demonstrate “leadership.”

Here is The Washington Post declaring America has the lead in the race to 5G. Here’s CNN asking “Who’s winning the race to 5G?” Here’s AT&T CEO Randall Stephenson declaring that China isn’t beating the US to 5G “yet,” as some sort of ominous warning. Here’s T-Mobile CEO John Legere telling the House Subcommittee on Communications and Technology that merging with Sprint will let his company “win the race to 5G.” Here is an entire microsite from industry lobbying group CTIA titled “The Race to 5G.”

Let us never forget AT&T being so desperate to lead this “race” that it rolled out fake 5Ge logos on its phones.

But the stakes of this supposed race are wholly unclear. What happens if we win, besides telecom execs getting slightly richer? More importantly, what are the drawbacks to coming in second, or even third? Where is the list of specific negative outcomes of China building a 5G network a month, a year, or even five years before the United States? I’ve never seen it, and I keep asking about it.

No one can say what bad things will happen if we don’t win the race to 5G

For example, here’s FCC Commissioner Geoffrey Starks on The Vergecast this week, when I asked why 5G is a race.

“I think it is important for us to continue to lead the race ... we obviously led to 4G and I think we get to set some of the standards that are ultimately going to be implemented worldwide, which is why there is a little bit of a race.”

Starks went on to say that China wants to be a global leader in supplying 5G equipment and that’s why Huawei has been so aggressively building and pricing its gear. But Huawei depends on American chip technology to make its products, and the US government has just put Huawei on a blacklist anyway. So... the race is so we can set some wireless standards? I suspect Apple, Google, Qualcomm, Verizon, and AT&T can fend for themselves when it comes to that process.

The other main argument for winning the “race” to 5G is that having the world’s best and fastest networks will create new economic opportunities for businesses of all kinds — we’ll enable self-driving cars and telemedicine and all the other stuff you hear about during interminable 5G slideshows at trade conferences. At a hearing before the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation earlier this year, Mississippi Sen. Roger Wicker confidently declared that “failing to win the race to 5G would not only materially delay the benefits of 5G for the American people, it would forever reduce the economic and societal gains that come from leading the world in technology.”

We won the race to LTE and our LTE networks are among the slowest and most expensive in the world

Maybe. It is indeed true that better networks lead to better opportunities, and that widespread high-speed broadband is something everyone wants. But I sincerely doubt that all of these companies will pick up and move to China or Europe if the United States builds 5G networks slightly slower. After all, we already have some of the slowest and most expensive networks in the world, and Apple and Facebook have not yet relocated to South Korea.

The more I hear about the race, the more I don’t buy it. I think the “race” framing is there to make some big decisions seem urgent and important — to make it appear as though some serious trade-offs are worth it in order to “win.” And those trade-offs are indeed serious: 5G networks will require a serious rethinking of how we use wireless spectrum. There are incredible privacy implications around putting millions of IoT devices in a “smart city” on 5G. Investment dollars will naturally flow toward building 5G networks in cities instead of expanding our networks to rural areas, exacerbating the digital divide.

The “race” is to there to make serious trade-offs seem worth it so we can “win”

And once the “race” to build out 5G in big cities is “won,” the pressure to expand access to other places in the country will vanish, making that divide even worse. It is worth carefully considering all of these things before giving in to haste.

Oh, and it appears that some of the required 5G spectrum might interfere with important weather sensors, a concern raised by NASA, the Navy, and the NOAA in hearings before Congress last week. How did the wireless industry respond to these concerns? By writing a blog post accusing meteorologists from across three government agencies of “risking our 5G leadership.” The implication, of course, is that worrying about detecting major weather events could make us lose the race.

This race is imaginary bullshit. It’s being foisted on us by huge telecom companies that know internet access is fundamentally a commodity and want something new to sell at high prices instead of competing to improve service and lower prices on the networks they have. After all, the United States “won” the “race” for LTE, but it bears repeating: our LTE networks are among the slowest in the world, and our prices among the highest. What did winning that race accomplish for the millions of people across the country that still can’t get a reliable LTE signal?

All I’m asking is that the next time you hear a wireless industry person talk about the “race” to 5G, stop and ask them why it’s a race. Ask who the competitors are, and what happens if we come in second place. See if you buy the answer. I suspect you won’t hear anything convincing.