Building the 5G Wall: What Do We Want to Become?

A super-fast national Internet exclusively for urban America? That’s the scenario that comes to mind in reading the Defense Innovation Board‘s report on 5G, the next generation of super-fast wireless communication. Written by technology’s A-List, it outlines a trajectory that separates cities from rural areas, the have’s from the have-not’s and the United States from the rest of the world in a “post-Western wireless ecosystem.”

“The leader in 5G stands to gain hundreds of billions of dollars in revenue over the next decade, with widespread job creation across the wireless technology sector. 5G has the potential to revolutionize other industries as well … The country that owns 5G will own many of these innovations and set standards for the rest of the world…

That country is currently not likely to be the United States.”

“The 5G Ecosystem: Risks & Opportunities for DoD,” Defense Innovation Board
(L to R) Mark Sirangelo, Milo Medin, Jennifer Pahlka, Eric Lander, Marne Levine, Eric Schmidt, J. Michael McQuade, Missy Cummings, Richard Murray, and Adam Grant. (DOD/Lisa Ferdinando)

Chaired by former Alphabet Chairman Eric Schmidt, the Board was commissioned by former Secretary of Defense Ash Carter to make recommendations to the Dept. of Defense on the next wave of innovation.

I recommend the 30-page document itself, but if you’re pressed for time, try Dr. Lee, Physic Genius’ more entertaining version though, disclosure, despite some inquiries, I have no idea who Dr. Lee is.

A technical approach that deepens divisions

In the United States, the Federal Communications Commission allocates the electromagnetic spectrum. Most current 5G development is in the “sub-6” range. But in the United States, the military owns that portion of the spectrum. So the FCC made a higher-band width known as “mmWave” available for commercial development, which is where Verizon and AT&T are developing their 5G offerings.

Courtesy of Policy Tracker

Only two other countries currently support mmWave for 5G. Both of these countries are now U.S. allies — Japan and South Korea — and both are using a dual strategy, developing both the sub-6 and mmWave ranges.

U.S. policy makers and suppliers hope mmWave will eventually become the global standard, but as the Defense Innovation Board report makes clear, it’s not a strategy to hang your hat on. MmWave transmissions are more powerful but shorter and blocked by solid barriers — walls, trees, even people. Providing comprehensive service will require what the report labels a “massive infrastructure build-out” ($$$). If and when that is successful, mmWave service may not be viable for rural areas, where reliable connectivity is a literally a lifeline.

Consider that despite diplomatic tensions with China, Canada recently signed a contract with Huawei to deliver 4G LTE to rural communities in the Arctic, remote areas of north-eastern Quebec and Newfoundland and Labrador and according to Huawei, some 25 communities in the largely Inuit areas of the Nunavut territory.

Own the IP; own the industry

No American company makes the base station equipment to transmit 5G signals. The United States owned the majority of 4G-related standards-essential patents. But today over one-third, (34%) of worldwide standards-essential patents for 5G technology are owned by Chinese companies, 15% by Huawei alone, according to Asia Nikkei News. South Korea is second, with over 25% of standard-essential patents.

That will make building the network infrastructure for autonomous cars or next generation factories more expensive for U.S. companies. But owning the intellectual property will reduce costs and accelerate China’s building the infrastructure of the future.

Courtesy of Nikkei Asian Review

Huawei has signed 50 contracts to provide next-generation 5G networks to 30 countries including Italy and the United Kingdom.

Courtesy of Nikkei Asian Review

We damn the consequences at our peril

Were the United States to decide to compete with the rest of the world, the Board’s report provides a timeline. Sharing the sub-6 spectrum will take five years, and the Board considers a sharing spectrum a viable alternative. Clearing the spectrum would take 10 years. This would get us to the starting gate — if the federal government were to open up the sub-6 range. And that’s a big “if” in this political environment.

“Damn the consequences!”

General George Patton

The consequences of isolation are immeasurable. Beyond the obvious — American competitiveness, jobs, standard of life, education, opportunity — connectivity is the root capability for solving every over-arching problem we face — climate change, income inequality, immigration, human rights.

I just finished reading Hyeonseo Lee‘s remarkable story of escaping from North Korea with her family. She’s paid a broker to get her mother and brother to South Korea when they are imprisoned in Laos. Here, she’s waiting to enter Laos to rescue them:

About 20 people were waiting in line to have their passwords stamped. A few were backpacking white Westerners in high spirits. I looked at them with envy. They were inhabitants of that other universe, governed by laws, human rights and welcoming tourist boards. It was oblivious to the one I inhabited, of secret police, assumed IDs and low-life brokers.”

Hyeonseo Lee, The Girl with Seven Names

Laws, human rights and a high standard of living are part of a vulnerable legal and moral infrastructure. Protecting its integrity and viability requires an actionable connectivity policy and a cogent strategy. The Defense Innovation Board report is a warning salvo. We must make sure that it is heard.

What will it take to make us safe?

We expect our government to keep us safe. The Constitution cites “providing for the common defense” as part of the reason to even have a government. In the best of times, protecting a country as proudly technology-driven as ours is a tough job. And these are not the best of times.

Ranking members of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence were in town recently to talk about the challenges of overseeing national security in a cyber world. Below, from left, Senator John Cornyn (R-Texas), Vice Chairman Senator Mark Warner (D-Va.), Chairman Senator Richard Burr (R-NC) and Moderator Stephen Slick.

Photo courtesy of the Texas National Security Review

“Technology is a wonderful thing. It helps us communicate, but it can also be meddled with,” said Burr. “We need to change the entire architecture of government to recognize we’re not in the 20th century. We’re in the 21st century, and that’s not just government (alone), it’s how we integrate that into the private sector.”

We can thank the Russians and Facebook for jump starting a public conversation about technology, sharing, business models and national security. Consider the complexities. Our finance, hospitality (Airbnb), mobility (Uber and Lyft), communications (Apple, Facebook and AT&T), oil & gas (pipelines), as well as many power, water and utility networks, are privately owned, managed and vulnerable.

A broken partnership and the spectre of 9/11

Technology has historically been a collaborative effort between the public and private sectors. Nuclear technology came out of World War II. The networking technology behind the Internet came out of the Defense Dept. via DARPA and the PARC research facility. But these days, the companies with the research and development muscle to push the boundaries of technology are global, rich and fast-moving. Thanks to Edward Snowden, intellectual property concerns, employee activism and a large customer base outside of U.S. borders, they don’t necessarily trust government to lead them down the right path. Google’s withdrawal from Project Maven, the Army’s first implementation of artificial intelligence is a case in point.

“We don’t want to stop innovation,” Cornyn explained. “But we need the private sector to be responsive to the needs of government.” He made a cautionary reference to the government’s failure to predict the incomprehensible horror of the Sept. 11 attacks:

Photo courtesy of Stan Honda


“The most important failure was one of imagination. We do not believe leaders understood the gravity of the threat … No president can promise that a catastrophic attack like that of 9/11 will not happen again. But the American people are entitled to expect that officials will have realistic objectives, clear guidance and effective organization.”


Excerpted from The 9/11 Commission Report

There are striking similarities between Big Tech and Washington. Both profess transparency but value secrecy. Both think globally and maintain strong international allegiances. Both know results matter. Both value the rights, freedoms and security our nation represents. Best case scenario, each provides a check and balance on the other.

Guardrails for the application of new technologies

Big Tech recognizes emerging technologies like AI are potentially dangerous. In June, Google published a set of internal principles that were accompanies by a cautionary memo from its chief executive, Sundar Pichai, “We recognize that such powerful technology raises equally powerful questions about its use.”

“This is why we’ve tried hard to articulate a set of AI principles. We may not have gotten everything right, but we thought it was important to start a conversation.”

Sundar Puchai, chief executive officer, Google

But Google’s AI principles don’t work for everyone. America’s fiercest competitor, China, requires companies to give up their source code, both figuratively and literally, for government applications. It has made artificial intelligence the cornerstone of its long-term strategy for technology leadership and a way to automate social control. Witness a recent issue of Jeff Ding’s excellent China AI newsletter for a translation of a white paper by the China Academy of Information and Communications Technology (CAICT) for an outline of “how Beijing aims to use AI to automate censorship, control of public opinion, and improved public security.” 

“If America gives up its leadership ability to set a a framework, it’s not going to happen,” warned Senator Byrd. Vice Chairman Mark Warner, both a founder of and an investor in technology companies, was more blunt. “We need guardrails…. We constantly reach out and beg them (the private sector) to work with us in a meaningful way.”

An inflection point in American history

Senator Ben Saase (R-NE) also spoke, describing the long-term race with China as “an inflection point in 230 years of American history,” an opportunity to “organize the American people around long-term competition with China.”

Senator Burr suggested that a public-private partnership located perhaps in North Carolina or Austin could develop the “architecture of cooperation” between the government and private sector.

Certainly, the Army took a calculated risk with its newly-formed Army Futures Command. Based here in Austin, AFS is an entire brigade charged with drawing talent from the start up community to develop the weapons of the future. It’s a big cooperative initiative with a challenging scope.

Never waste a good crisis

Austin has a solid track record of public-private partnerships, most successfully with SEMATECH, formed in the late 1980’s when the semiconductor industry was fighting a losing battle with the Japanese. But P3s are no silver bullet. They are highly collaborative. Competitive issues can be a barrier. They require the participation of top talent. Crises come and go, and their goals and structures must adapt:.

  • A crisis is helpful to attract support, but there must be an overarching vision to give it the flexibility to adapt as things change. Political, social, economic, and technological conditions are fluid and a P3’s structure, mission and goals needs to reflect those changes.
  • Collaboration is key, modeled from the top and rewarded at all levels of the organization. Beware of making intellectual property a barrier in this integral process.
  • Large companies have the resources – talent and support – to collaborate. Smaller companies quickly become overextended. Set realistic expectations with leadership.
  • Define ROI in terms of the organization’s goals. Establish incremental ROI benchmarks to demonstrate early successes. People will be watching.

A closing note on intellectual property

Intellectual property is a concern in any collaboration, but restrictive IP requirements can torpedo possibilities. I found this article by Charles Duhigg a fascinating case study of the Silicon Valley mindset. It describes tech’s proprietary focus on IP and the lengths Google took to retain the knowledge inside a top engineer’s head, the intriguingly perverse Anthony Levandowski. The piece closes with this quote from Levandowski, who as of this writing is working with Chinese investors to fund his self-driving truck start up:

“The only thing that matters is the future… I don’t even know why we study history. It’s entertaining, I guess — the dinosaurs and the Neanderthals and the Industrial Revolution, and stuff like that. But what already happened doesn’t really matter. You don’t need to know that History to build on what they made. In technology, all that matters is tomorrow.”

Anthony Levandowski, serial entrepreneur and former top Google engineer

For more information, here is a link to the presentations from the Fifth Annual Texas National Security Forum, “The Return of Great Power Competition” and the inspiration for this entry.