WASHINGTON — Amazingly, the Senate just sent a bipartisan request to the White House.
In a hopeful if small sign that there are matters of state that Republicans and Democrats can still agree on, a coalition of senators is arguing that the United States is at serious risk of losing the international race to get 5G wireless technology.
This could constitute a major national security threat, the senators argued in a letter to Peter O'Brien, national security adviser to President Trump.
China is by all reports surging ahead in this area. At the end of October the Communist Party said that 5G — one of its key priorities — is already up and running for a number of commercial enterprises and that its 50 major cities will have 5G by the end of the year. By contrast, Verizon, which launched its 5G network about seven months ago, says it has 5G operating in 18 cities now and hopes to have it in 30 cities by the end of 2019. The downside is that such ultrafast speeds are available mostly on streets and sidewalks — not inside buildings. Not inside your typical Starbucks, for example. Plenty of lattes but not enough millimeter waves.
China reportedly has outspent the United States on developing 5G by $24 billion since 2015. Some think the real figure is in the hundreds of billions.
So, fellow citizens, why should we care?
Your 4G wireless capability may suit you just fine, but 5G is the next generation high-speed internet service and needs a lot of expensive infrastructure. If Chinese companies dominate in this area, many think the U.S. could suffer a catastrophic loss of security and economic dominance.
China's plan to spend $400 billion to upgrade to 5G wireless. If that happens, the United States might never catch up, some U.S. analysts think. 5G is 100 times faster than 4G. 5G puts through a command 400 times faster than the blink of an eye. A movie download could take seconds, not minutes. Games would be played much faster. More importantly, a self-driving car would be programmed to act much faster and much more safely, and industrial equipment without 5G would be quickly outmoded.
Then, of course, computer commands to access massive amounts of government data and to missiles or spacecraft could make the dominant country indomitable. That could become a national emergency if the United States is not that country.
In a letter first obtained by The Wall Street Journal, the group of senators told the White House: "While we appreciate the progress being made within and across (federal) departments and agencies, we are concerned that their respective approaches are not informed by a coherent national strategy. In our view, the current national level approach to 5G comprises a dispersed coalition of common concern, rather than a coordinated, interagency activity."
The White House did not immediately respond, although Trump has said he wants 5G to be a national priority. One reason is that rural voters, who voted for Trump in 2016, tend to have slower internet connections than urban voters. As we all know, Trump is very eager to be reelected in 2020.
However, there is a vicious, fractious and worrisome disconnect among federal agencies, all of which seem to have different 5G plans and strategies and competing demands for spectrum allocation — which agency gets the most access to 5G. The person who was supposed to be coordinating abruptly quit.
The Federal Communications Commission wants 5G but is stuck on which ones of several proposals to choose. The FCC chairman, Ajit Pai, said he backs a proposed merger by Sprint and T-Mobile on the theory that such a company would have the resources to push 5G faster. But a number of state attorneys general have filed an antitrust lawsuit against the merger on grounds that it would not be beneficial to American cellphone users.
Meanwhile, China is determined to be first, which would give its businesses — and government — a huge leg up. Many analysts think who wins the global 5G race is far more important than whether the U.S. or China "wins" the current trade war.
There was supposed to be a national report on where the U.S. is on the 5G competition due out last summer. But it has yet to be released by the White House, which seems to be tied up with infighting and impeachment.
Essentially, both Republicans and Democrats in Congress are throwing up their hands in frustration with the now-public message to the White House: Get your act together, guys.