The United States is catching up to China and South Korea on 5G deployment but can only consider itself a "winner" if the technology deploys everywhere, a U.S. Senate committee heard Wednesday.
Members of the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation said the United States’ efforts to roll out the technology are bearing fruit, and while the country still trails its Asian counterparts, it is moving in the right direction. A report from Deloitte found China has outspent the U.S. by $24 billion on 5G infrastructure since 2015, and late last year at a White House summit on the technology, multiple officials called on government to step aside and let the private sector lead the way.
Those at the hearing on Capitol Hill said the U.S. should embrace a leadership role. "Failing to win the race to 5G would not only materially delay benefits for the American people, it would forever reduce the economic and societal gains that come from leading the world in technology," Committee Chairman Roger Wicker, R-MS, said during the hearing.
But for the U.S. to call itself a leader on 5G, experts and elected leaders said more must be done to close the urban/rural digital divide and ensure rural communities are not left behind with poor or non-existent connectivity while cities add 5G service and enjoy faster speeds. In interviews earlier this year, several people told Smart Cities Dive that 5G could help close that digital divide, but the cost to build out infrastructure to support 5G is prohibitive for telecoms companies and local jurisdictions.
"I prefer to look at the 5G race as a cross-country team event,” Steve Berry, president and CEO of the Competitive Carriers Association, said during his testimony. "The first to cross the finish line may get more points, but the race is not over until the entire team finishes, and rural America is a key member of that team, and we must ensure the connectivity gap is bridged."
Senators said the best way to start closing the digital divide is to properly determine where there are coverage gaps, with several criticizing the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) for a deficient coverage mapping process that they said understates the issue. And while they gave the FCC credit for announcing they would be addressing potential discrepancies to improve accuracy, they said the fact that the maps were incorrect in the first place caused problems.
"The first to cross the finish line may get more points, but the race is not over until the entire team finishes, and rural America is a key member of that team, and we must ensure the connectivity gap is bridged."
President and CEO, Competitive Carriers Association
"We have to close the digital divide; it’s imperative," U.S. Sen. Marsha Blackburn, R-TN, said. "And we’re not going to do that unless we know where we need to go." Blackburn said the mapping process should be taken over by the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA), a part of the U.S. Department of Commerce.
Sen. Brian Schatz, D-HI, went further, saying the reason for a lack of coverage is due to a lack of financial investment, and more must be done. "I worry that as we race to get 5G in as many places as we can, we don't have 4G in many places, we don't have broadband connectivity in many places, and we want to win every race,” he said. “But we don't want to admit that this takes resources.”
And U.S. Sen. Jerry Moran, R-KS, said another way to ensure the U.S. is not left behind on 5G is to follow through on the national spectrum strategy floated by President Donald Trump last year. In a presidential memorandum, Trump called for a comprehensive government strategy to ensure there is enough spectrum to accommodate the introduction of 5G networks, as well as policy recommendations to increase spectrum access for all users, flexible models for management and sharing among federal and non-federal stakeholders.
Brad Gillen, executive vice president at CTIA and a witness at the hearing, said that any strategy around spectrum should include an "actionable plan" for when it can be built out and invested in, especially in the mid-band spectrum. "That’s a place where, from the U.S. perspective, the administration can lead on," he said.
Ensuring 5G rollout is done equitably across all communities is a priority for the committee, and Wicker said those who wish to see the technology impact rural areas have “a lot of teammates” in that mission.