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The Politics and Potential of 5G

An Altamar podcast interview with Former Head of the Federal Communications Commission

Fifth generation (5G) technology’s speed and reliability promise to revolutionize the world’s economy and communications. Low-cost data and boosted mobility will connect people on a mass scale. Industries, schools, militaries and hospitals will have newfound access to artificial intelligence, robotics, streamlined supply chains and automation. 

According to Qualcomm, 5G capabilities will produce $12 trillion worth of goods and services, support 22 million jobs and create $3.5 trillion in aggregate revenue by 2035. There are also challenges including security risks, privacy concerns and a hefty price tag. 

Tom Wheeler, former head of the Federal Communications Commission, joins the Altamar podcast team of Peter Schechter and Muni Jensen to examine the technology’s challenges and opportunities. Wheeler has been involved with telecommunications networks and policies for more than four decades, including the adoption of net neutrality, privacy protections for consumers and increased cybersecurity, among others. In the private sector, he has worked with a variety of companies to offer innovative cable, wireless and video communications services. 

For some context on the selling points of 5G, Wheeler explains: “I think the greatest benefit is that it is an entirely new network structure — what the geeks call ‘topology’ — in that we are now substituting old, hardware-based networks for the software-based network.” This allows for substantially faster data speeds and reduced “latency periods,” or the time it takes for devices to communicate with each other. In addition, “It is less expensive to both build and operate than hardware,” meaning newfound access to developing countries as well. 

Wheeler explains how 5G will be affected by the different approaches to investing in the U.S. versus China.

Things become more complicated as soon as politics enters the picture. Regarding 5G’s alleged threat to privacy, Wheeler says the technology itself is not the problem: “I wouldn’t go so far as to say that the network itself is some kind of threat … it is never the primary network that is transformational, but the secondary effects of that network. How we are using the internet writ large, let alone the wireless internet, means there is reason to believe it has negative effects on democracy, because the business plan of social media providers is to divide us into tribes … and, in the process, to threaten … the ability to come together.” 

Wheeler explains that much of the risk in 5G technology is in how networks are used.

The technology could have a profound impact on relations between countries. At the moment, Chinese state-controlled companies such as Huawei are its main manufacturers. Should 5G become standardized, China could enjoy greater geopolitical leverage over the rest of the world, further heightening tensions with the U.S. and Europe — especially as the U.S. steps away from its role at the forefront of guiding tech policy: “It used to be that the United States was the leader in building the global regulatory structure. And because of the fact that we have been on this, for several decades, ‘don’t touch the internet, you can’t regulate it, you may break something if you do that,’ we have allowed other nations to step up and make the rules.”

Wheeler explains how the U.S. has allowed other nations to set technology and internet policy. 

Wheeler argues that China isn’t the only security risk that could come from advances like 5G — it’s also the hackers of software systems anywhere and everywhere: “I think we certainly can’t underestimate China. But, in the interconnected network, we’ve already seen North Korea doing the Sony attack, attacking banks to fund their activities; activities Iran does; the intelligence community has told us that election interference has been ongoing since the last election. … And if 5G is the network of the 21st century, which I believe it is, and if that pathway is an invitation to attack, we ought to be doing something proactively about that. … We’re going to be playing catch-up.” 

As a 5G-connected world is underway, already “6G is being developed as we speak.” What’s more, “I think that there is at least a thought process in some circles that are working on the standard that IPV6, version 6 of internet protocol, has been taken as far as it can, and we maybe need to think about a new concept. And that is a mind-boggling thought in itself.”

Altamar is a global politics podcast hosted by former Atlantic Council senior vice president Peter Schechter and award-winning journalist Muni Jensen. To learn more about 5G and to listen to the full episode, click here.

Tom Wheeler

Former Head of the Federal Communications Commission @TomWheelerFCC

Tom Wheeler became the 31st chairman of the Federal Communications Commission on November 4, 2013 and served until January 20, 2017. Chairman Wheeler was appointed by President Barack Obama and unanimously confirmed by the United States Senate.

For over three decades, Chairman Wheeler has been involved with new telecommunications networks and services, experiencing the revolution in telecommunications as a policy expert, an advocate, and a businessman. As an entrepreneur, he started or helped start multiple companies offering innovative cable, wireless, and video communications services.

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