October 30, 2020

The ‘Race To 5G’ Is A Giant Pile Of Lobbyist Nonsense

We’ve noted for a while that the “race to 5G” is largely just the byproduct of telecom lobbyists hoping to spike lagging smartphone and network hardware sales. Yes, 5G is important in that it will provide faster, more resilient networks when it’s finally deployed at scale years from now. But the society-altering impacts of the technology are extremely over-hyped, international efforts to deploy the faster wireless standard aren’t really a race, and even if it were, our broadband maps are so terrible (by design) it would be impossible to actually determine who won.

The idea that we’re “racing China to 5G,” and need to mindlessly pander to U.S. telecom giants to win said race, has also become a mainstay in tech policy circles and tech coverage for two or three years now. We’re at the point where 5G (like the blockchain or AI) now exists as a sort of policy pixie dust to be sprinkled around generously by lobbyists and K Street beggars looking to wow luddite lawmakers, even if the underlying arguments often make no coherent sense. When 5G is fused with overheated national security concerns, it becomes even more incoherent.

Enter former Representative Mike Rogers, who last week announced he was heading a new 501(c)4 group dubbed 5G Action Now. 5G Action Now frames itself as an objective third party outfit that is just apparently really excited about 5G, insisting its goal is to “educate members of Congress and the American people” to better understand the “race to 5G”:

“5G Action Now was founded to establish the United States as the worldwide leader in 5G. Our goal is to elevate the conversation regarding American national security and the economic benefits of winning the 5G innovation and deployment battle against China. 5G will spur economic growth in rural America, create an environment for technological expansion, and put the U.S. on strong national security footing for generations to come.”

Mike’s bio around the internet usually reveals how he’s also a “security advisor” for AT&T, though oddly his bio over at the 5G Action Now website excludes this fact. The ambiguous venture appears to have numerous telecom backers, including a coalition of European and Canadian satellite companies looking for all the usual fare: weakened regulatory oversight, more subsidies, and a bigger slice of the publicly-owned airwaves to make a profit off of. It’s more of a “race to government protection” or a “race to fatter revenues” than any kind of race to meaningful 5G domination or consumer benefit.

The group’s website is filled with rhetoric about how 5G is a “battle with China,” hinting at some immense unforeseeable calamity should the Chinese government deploy 5G quickly to human beings you’ll never meet, half a world away:

While the US technically “won” the race to 4G by being first to deploy it, it didn’t really wind up meaning all that much. U.S. consumers pay some of the highest prices for wireless service in the developed world, for 4G services that are routinely ranked as some of the slowest in the OECD. Thanks to regulatory capture, corruption, and mindless M&A mania (like the looming Sprint T-Mobile merger), it’s a problem that’s not going away anytime soon. 5G is not, contrary to what you’ll be told by industry and stenographing journalists and evangelists, some mystical panacea.

There’s a reason AT&T, Verizon, and T-Mobile are fighting efforts to adequately map 5G, and have routinely over-inflated 5G availability claims overall. The “race” rhetoric is largely an illusion created by companies eager to do the bare minimum in exchange for as many subsidies, regulatory favors and tax breaks they can grab. This mindless regulatory capture has resulted in a US Telecom sector that routinely ranks in the middle of the pack in every metric that matters. While 5G will be a good thing when deployed at scale, it’s foolish to think the new wireless technical standard will address the deeper rot that plagues the sector.

We didn’t win the race to 4G, and we’re unlikely to win the “race to 5G,” either. Why? Because our telecom policy involves effectively pandering to every whim of mono/duopolists, then standing around with a dumb look on our faces as prices soar, coverage lags, and Kafka-esque customer service headlines become the norm.

The race rhetoric serves one larger purpose: it ensures that nobody pauses to think about policy considerations like prices, open networks, consumer rights, or even coverage. It results in a country that can’t apparently repair its bridges or feed the public, but can easily throw another $1.5 billion at telecom giants that are in absolutely no need of subsidization or more tax breaks. At some point, you’d think we’d learn to stop throwing billions of unaccountable dollars at companies with a thirty-year track record of failing repeatedly to live up to their end of the bargain.

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