America is in a high-stakes battle with China over the future of wireless. But sometimes it seems like only Beijing realizes it.
Business as usual has allowed our wireless-technology industry to atrophy or move overseas, while China presses ahead with an explicit plan to dominate wireless technology and wireless networks worldwide.
Our big wireless carriers say there’s nothing to worry about. But their dirty secret is that they are marketing and customer-service outfits, not technology leaders.
Asking a carrier to secure the future of wireless technology is like asking a Walgreens employee to invent the next blockbuster drug. Walgreens is a great business, but it isn’t in the business of invention. Fifty years ago, AT&T owned Bell Labs. Today Nokia does. It’s still out there in northern New Jersey, but it’s a shadow of its former self.
This is the fate of our entire wireless-technology industry unless we do something, and quickly, to flip the table on Xi Jinping. The Chinese will own the technology, and we will have no one else to buy it from but them.
Seven years ago, the US government sought to fill a gap in our communications infrastructure by setting aside dedicated, nationwide spectrum for first responders. As happens all too often in Washington, that effort was captured by big-business interests, and the First Responder Network became just another subsidy for AT&T.
Today, we have another chance to fill a gap and meet a pressing national need in wireless. The Trump administration has taken important steps to enforce our laws and punish Huawei for flouting export restrictions and stealing intellectual property. But we can do more.
We have to start by recognizing that fifth-generation, or 5G, networks will be different. They will require new technology but also new business models, new structures and new ways of connecting everything.
This new paradigm demands new policies. Right now in official Washington a debate is roaring over whether we need four national wireless networks or three or some other number.
But how many networks we have matters a lot less than how we get to use them. The dot-com boom gave us the most valuable companies in the history of the world. But before that happened, every Schmoe with an idea set up a Web business. Most of them failed; the important thing was that they were free to try, because that’s how we got the two or three ideas that have now changed the world.
Wireless today isn’t open to new ideas. With our big carriers, it’s their way, or no way, onto the highway.
Let’s try something different. A network that, like the Internet 1.0, lets everyone and his dog set up a wireless business and try to sell it to us. A wholesale network that cares more about making sure spectrum gets used than who gets to use it.
Our wireless operators are too staid to try it. They are busy buying TV stations instead of inventing the future of the Internet.
But the government controls all spectrum, as it has since the 1920s. So it could make some available for an experiment in wireless freedom: Offer a block of spectrum to whoever commits to build a network that covers all Americans, and to sell the capacity on that network without fear or favor.
Insist that it’s built with private money, and that the network owners pay royalty for the spectrum back to the government. No free rides and no subsidies. But the rules are: Cover everyone, especially the people the big boys don’t like to serve, and sell the capacity at the market-clearing price.
Some say no one wants to build a network like that. I say, let’s find out. If the naysayers are right, nothing is lost. If they’re wrong, we can accelerate wireless investment, cover rural America and bring wireless leadership back home, out of Comrade Xi’s hands.
Brian Carney is a senior vice president at Rivada Networks, a company that supports the creation of a privately financed, nationwide, wholesale open-access 5G network.