When it comes to discussing information and communication technology (ICT), the international conversation seems to be stuck on 5G. Each month sees a barrage of headlines along the lines of “5 things 5G will do that you didn’t expect,” “5G is here. Does it matter for your smart home?”, and “What CIOs need to know about 5G.” And when it comes to ICT policy, the focus centers on calls for government strategies for 5G cybersecurity. Yes, thanks to 5G your smart thermostat can be used to hack into your home network and spy on you. All technological change has the power to reinvent the way we live and work. But 5G, to the big players, is already past. We need to look ahead. We need to talk about 6G.

It is a fairly non-controversial point that China has won the 5G war with the United States, if we were ever even fighting to begin with. The United States checked out when it came to 5G investment, development, and manufacturing. China participated on international standard setting bodies; they invested heavily in infrastructure necessary to make 5G rollout a reality, funding massive multi-million dollar low interest loans across the globe. They defined the rules of the game and are profiting: Chinese firms and services in the 5G space have seen continual increases in demand and employment opportunities.

Meanwhile, the United States stepped back from the world stage, receded from international diplomacy and standard setting bodies, failed to fund infrastructure improvements necessary to incentivize the deployment of 5G and became embroiled in political infighting. And that’s not to mention the Federal Communication Commission’s (FCC) lackadaisical approach to 5G cybersecurity regulation, reducing the power and the security of the only relevant regulatory body in our government.

So why do we keep having the 5G discussion? Is China going to disinvest billions of dollars of loans across the globe? Will the United States suddenly step in after the finalization of 5G standards and demand a re-do? No. And, therefore, we need to look ahead to the next big technological bullfight: 6G. 6G solutions may look a lot like 5G solutions, but they demand investment and focus. We have to start now to engage in standards-setting bodies, and promote global discussions about loans, procurements and rollouts. China is already doing just that, and sending up test satellites for 6G infrastructure.

It is not today’s networks and infrastructure that we can rip and replace, but the next set. 5G—or 6G—is a means to an end; the goal is to remain competitive in an increasingly complicated and critical cyber space. The United States cannot afford to stay on the sidelines—we have the opportunity to re-engage and re-emerge as an international leader and partner. We must invest in our own research and development on the next technologies, craft smart strategies for technological advancement, and secure our supply chain for the decades ahead.

With these decisions and engagements, the United States can improve cybersecurity through a strong ICT supply chain strategy; policy for materials and manufacture; a research and development investment plan; and international engagement. All of these discussions are inherently forward-looking and should be focused on upcoming issues, not past failures.

Now, this is not to say that we should roll over and play dead on 5G. The Trump administration, for all its flaws, did recognize the threat of having Huawei in our allies’ networks, and over time turned the tide on Huawei adoption in allied nations. We will need to maintain a rearguard, delaying 5G action. We need to push forward on strengthening encryption standards, encourage the development of zero-trust networks, bolster data privacy, and rigorously examine existing hardware and software. In short, we need to retrofit 5G to U.S. security as best as we can, while prepping for the future.

The United States jumped into the 5G fight too late, conceding critical battlegrounds to China, allowing a revisionist power overtake our standing on the world stage. But, while the 5G battle may be lost, the 6G battle is ahead. To paraphrase Franklin Roosevelt: there are a lot of ways to move forward, but there is only one way to stand still. Let’s try a new direction and reject the policy of standing still.

Image credit: Marko Aliaksandr

Featured Publications