How the U.S. Can Catch Up in the 5G Race

Government collaboration is much more important in building out the network than it was for 4G

By far the largest distraction was net neutrality, an academic networking issue with a negligible effect on consumers. Net neutrality remained obscure to the public until 2014, when a coalition of law academics, media activists and large and small Web companies persuaded President Obama to their side. Net neutrality then became a political issue, which poisoned the normally chummy relationships between the FCC and the relevant congressional committees and turned telecom and tech companies against each other. The regulatory warfare has played out in seemingly endless agency proceedings, congressional hearings and court petitions.

This issue never consumed regulators and industry in Europe and Asia like it did in the U.S. In Europe, though, 5G ambitions have hit other roadblocks. Europe’s 5G pilot programs are extensive and have government subsidies and support. However, Europe’s fragmented wireless sector—there are more than 100 national cellular carriers in Europe, compared with four in the U.S. and three in China—and restrictive regulatory environment are handicaps.

Meanwhile, the Chinese government has prioritized 5G global leadership through central planning, subsidies, university training and the recruitment of tech talent. And China has quietly developed a truly advanced tech sector that is ready to build new apps and services for the 5G network, led by companies like Tencent, Baidu, and Alibaba.

A winning formula

The U.S. isn’t starting from scratch, however. Indeed, in one important way it has a head start: The country is covered by the most extensive web of 4G networks in the world. Those networks can be upgraded to the world’s most extensive 5G coverage if cities and counties can expedite the permits needed for network updates and resist charging excessive fees and lease terms for cells on public property.

Most important for 5G success, the U.S. has Silicon Valley, other tech outposts nationwide and lone-wolf inventors scattered throughout the country. This freewheeling, innovative tech culture and the rich venture-capital industry that nurtures it are a combination that is unique globally, despite other countries’ attempts to imitate it. Chinese companies are leaders in 5G patents and standards proposals, but they will have a much harder task in matching the U.S. tech sector’s ability to create popular mobile apps and services for a global market.