Former FCC Chairman Explains Why 5G Isn’t a Race

Andrey Suslov/

Tom Wheeler wants to bust the misrepresentations about the next-gen network.

Much of the discussion around the emergence of 5G wireless technology signals that there’s a global race between conflicting stakeholders pushing to launch it first. 

But framing the tech in the context of a “contest” distracts major players from developing cohesive strategies that are necessary to deploy and govern it, former Federal Communications Commission Chairman Tom Wheeler warns in a report released by the Brookings Institution Tuesday. 

“It’s time to identify the important 5G policy goals and pursue them in a focused manner,” Wheeler writes. “It is time to set goals beyond the amorphous ‘winning’ of an ill-defined 5G race.”

Wheeler, who served as FCC chairman from 2013 to 2017, adapted the paper from a presentation requested by the Government Accountability Office. Throughout the report, he aims to dispel disinformation around the emerging tech and urges the government leaders to set achievable goals and hone in on “measurable deliverables.” 

The former Obama official offers deep insights into the technical makeup of 5G and critical implications of the spectrum and addresses issues that are often overlooked, such as the significant operating costs required to run the tech and a comparison of how different countries portray the possibility that it will cause dire health effects. 

Wheeler warns against federal officials’ positioning of 5G as a political prop to boost their own agendas. He also spotlights the president’s handling of 5G policy development and the complexities of the budding cyber threat landscape.

“It is time to take a deep breath and realize that 5G is something more than marketing slogans or technology to be weaponized for political purposes,” he writes.

Wheeler notes that security issues around the tech far transcend the threats posed by Chinese companies like Huawei and others that dominate the conversation because they are already integrated into the supply chain. 

“The Trump administration’s focus on Huawei equipment is not a cybersecurity strategy, and by melding trade policy with cybersecurity, damages each,” he said. 

In terms of the so-called “race,” Wheeler argues that America was not the first entity to deploy 1G through 4G networks, yet still managed to produce leading companies that command the landscape, noting that “98% of all the mobile devices in the world rely on U.S. technology.” 

He explains that instead of focusing on rather unsophisticated dialogues around winning and losing, the nation needs solid and achievable policy goals to guide its future innovations. 

“Ultimately, it is necessary to ask the question whether all the attention being directed to the ‘5G race’ is about national leadership, or is it an attempt to obscure attention from the tough policy leadership required for the much more nitty-gritty issues inherent in 5G deployment?” he writes.