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Turning an ‘Evolutionary’ 5G Wireless Technology Into an International Race is Purely Political, Says Tom Wheeler

Masha Abarinova

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WASHINGTON, July 24, 2019 – Former Federal Communications Commission Chairman Tom Wheeler doused cold water on the increasingly growing hype surrounding the 5G wireless standard at a Brookings Institution event on Wednesday.

Instead, he said, 5G deployment will be an evolutionary process. And the notion that we are on a “race to 5G” is really a purely political tool, he said.

As tensions unfolds with U.S. trade issues and firms competing to be 5G frontrunners, Wheeler said that the goal to successful deployment is to “rationally facilitate rollout in a way that doesn’t stifle competition.”

5G’s impact on connectivity cannot be underestimated, he said. It is the first all-software network and will be the last major overhaul of a wireless network for decades to come. But developers and policy experts need to look at 5G’s secondary impacts on society.

An estimated 11 percent of Americans don’t have access to high-speed broadband, said Wheeler. 5G requires a new level of wired connectivity in order to transmit data from small-cell sites. The government needs to enact policies that extends the reach of fiber to rural areas and other underserved communities.

Connecting rural communities requires an ecosystem built around human capital, said Karim Foda, economist at the International Monetary Fund. A connected workforce is important for people to adapt their skillsets to evolving technology.

At the macro level, Foda said, a vibrant general-purpose information technology environment can help foster a dynamic and inclusive economy. However, tech can be stymied by three factors: A declining level of competition among firms, increasing importance of “intangible capital” and declining public investment in basic tech research.

Rollout delays also stem from gaps of productivity in the economy. The firms at the top of the supply chain produce quickly and efficiently, while the smaller firms are left behind in the innovation process. As the dominant firms pursue rent-seeking behavior and consolidate intellectual property, he said, the market entry barrier becomes higher.

What’s key, said Wheeler, is that policymakers need to start thinking of long-term policies that would better facilitate technology competition.

(Photo of Tom Wheeler from November 2015 by Eric Bridiers used with permission.)

 

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