Senators from both parties on Wednesday signaled support for building a fifth-generation wireless network that could enable innovation in telecom, agriculture, and health care sectors but raised concerns that China is already on its way to establishing dominance over the technology.
At the year’s first hearing of the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, new Chairman Roger Wicker, R-Miss., said nationwide 5G implementation could propel the United States “into the fourth industrial revolution,” by creating millions of new jobs and enhancing transportation and agricultural systems through enhanced connectivity.
But if China wins the “race to 5G,” Wicker said, it could “forever reduce” the status of the United States as a global leader in technology.
Deliberations over the build-out of a 5G network in the United States have been dominated by the specter of national security threats posed by Chinese telecom companies including Huawei and ZTE, which build many of the components in wireless networks worldwide and have been accused of seeking to steal technology and spy on Americans by U.S. intelligence agencies.
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Michael Wessel, a commissioner with the bipartisan U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission, told the committee that China is “already doing everything it can legally and illegally” to gain an advantage over 5G implementation.
“China wants to dominate 5G and they’re ready to pour $400 billion into its development,” Wessel said. “We have no comparable plans in the U.S.”
President Donald Trump has sought to pressure China over its technology policies during ongoing trade negotiations and has played hardball with Huawei and ZTE, banning the use of their technology in government equipment. And in his State of the Union address on Tuesday night, Trump backed investing in “the cutting edge industries of the future.”
Industry stakeholders who testified on Wednesday offered a slew of attractive innovations they said could be more easily implemented with the help of 5G, including safer school buses and precision agriculture tools that could boost or reduce crop yields according to market demand. Wicker discussed a pilot program in Mississippi that brings telehealth services to rural patients.
Rural communities, in particular, stand to gain from 5G, said Steve Berry, president of Competitive Carriers Association, which represents small and medium-sized internet service providers.
“The race to 5G will not be won if rural America is left behind,” said Berry. “We must ensure the connectivity gap is bridged.”
When Sen. Tom Udall, D-N.M., asked why some service providers continue to use Chinese components in their networks despite the risks, Berry said the lower cost of Chinese equipment can be a draw for smaller companies fighting to remain competitive. But he said industry leaders share the government’s national security concerns.
“Our members want to do the right thing,” he said.