The U.S. has opened yet another area of conflict with China in the past week, this time centered on new 5G wireless technology. The Trump administration recently declared a ban on US companies working with Chinese telecom company Huawei, although it also introduced a 90-day grace period to ease the decision’s economic impact.
There are a number of reasons why this ban may or may not be wise, but the reason it was even contemplated is clear: The United States hasn’t been funding the development of 5G and other cutting-edge technologies as much as is needed in our globally competitive time.
For the past few years, global telecom companies have been engaged in a competition to develop the next generation in wireless technology. New 5G networks promise dramatic improvements in speed over the current 4G LTE standard, allowing phones to download movies in seconds and enabling a new level of connectivity between smart devices, such as self-driving cars.
However, in order to implement 5G, wireless carriers will need to replace current 4G components with new 5G-capable ones. The only issue is that only three companies manufacture these components: Huawei, Finland’s Nokia, and Sweden’s Ericsson. Of the three, Huawei is decidedly the furthest ahead, with many experimental networks already up and running in China and components up to 30% cheaper than its competitors.
This isn’t to say America is entirely out of step. The ban will harm Huawei due to its reliance on U.S. chip manufacturers like Qualcomm in creating its components. NC State researchers have contributed directly to 5G development, such as an ECE professor who developed a method for devices to send data more efficiently over the network. But we haven’t spent billions of dollars like Huawei has on developing its technology to a scale capable of meeting global needs.
While falling behind on a technology isn’t ideal for American companies, in a global economy it’s inevitable that we will have to rely on foreign technology in a variety of fields. What makes 5G worrisome is that it will serve as the backbone of much of the internet for the foreseeable future, and Huawei has long been accused of having cybersecurity flaws that enable Chinese intelligence agencies to break in and steal information. This runs the risk of granting China profound access to the world’s data streams.
For this reason, many large companies have already expressed concern about using Huawei’s 5G components in their networks. Huawei is actually the world’s second largest cellphone manufacturer, yet due to security concerns its phones are a rarity in the U.S. That said, this ban could jeopardize internet access for Americans in rural areas, where smaller wireless providers have been using Huawei’s 4G technology for years.
All of this begs the question, how did the U.S. not prepare for this looming threat? According to Time, America's dominance in technology “has much to do with infrastructural advantages in the U.S., along with world-class universities and easy access to capital.” As China and other countries continue to modernize, this advantage has been eroding.
While the U.S. is far from the bottom of the pack in terms of education and infrastructure, it’s also far from the lead. While discussion of a trillion-dollar infrastructure deal at the national level flamed out after a recent meeting between Democrats and President Trump, North Carolina has an opportunity to do its part in promoting our future during budget talks.
As the global economy becomes more interconnected and more competitive, in order for America to continue to reap the benefits of being a leader in technology, we must put major investments toward human capital, research and the infrastructure necessary to combine existing technology cheaply and efficiently. Anything less, and we risk facing these economic dilemmas more often.
The state House of Representatives and Gov. Roy Cooper have both released their proposals for the state’s 2019-2021 budget. Cooper’s budget recommendation prioritizes both education funding and infrastructure. He asks for increases in teacher pay, funding for pre-kindergarten programs and college scholarships and grants for rural areas to attract businesses and improve local infrastructure.
While the House budget does not yet include teacher pay increases, it must pass through several more committees and iterations before it becomes law. With neither party fully in control of the budgeting process, both sides will have to compromise in order for the budget to pass. With luck, legislators will craft a budget that helps all North Carolinians and works to boost our capacity for innovation.