Could Cold War With China Increase America’s 5G?

If there were no Soviets, would we go to the moon? Many people don’t think so. So it’s probably a good thing that former Google CEO Eric Schmidt and Harvard professor Graham Ellison framed our 5G screwup in the context of China’s attempt to crush and destroy America. (They use PCMag’s Fastest Mobile Networks study for evidence that US low-band 5G often performs worse than 4G, which is true.) We’d better get mid-band 5G. If the subtext of their column reads, or we’ll be hanging pictures soon. Xi Jinping’s in our living room.

Now, the American political system needs some sort of kick in the pants to gain wireless technology leadership. The global embarrassment of the FAA trying to block C-band 5G has had some positive effect. New FCC President Jessica Rosenworcel and the NTIA have just released a memo beginning to coordinate on spectrum policy to prevent further inter-federal fighting, and the mess-affiliated FAA chief just stepped down.

But there is still much more to be done. Network building needs to be streamlined at the federal, state and city levels; As Schmidt and Allison point out, laying fiber is just as important as laying panels. A wartime move to our space, technology and computing programs worked wonders in the 1960s and 1970s. The Internet was a Cold War Defense Department project – so perhaps this is the framework the government needs to stop wandering.

The national urgency may mean overcoming serious property owners and local vassals to speed up fiber rollout, or even demanding that carriers share some of the infrastructure. The FCC took a good step this week to end the fallout between ISPs and property owners who are restricting competition. The national urgency absolutely must mean funding the CHIPS Act and making us rely less on imported microprocessors.

America’s failure to promote high-tech manufacturing is prompting us to blame others for our weakness, but it is our own fault. Globally, chip manufacturing and mobile infrastructure are subsidies-led games, and the US chose not to participate. Smart tariffs can also play a role in leveling a playing field without spoiling our competitors or crushing business. Instead, we pretend to be everyone by our rules (they don’t) and angry saber-rattles.

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Framing it as “war vs China” as opposed to “let’s make America better” gives me creeps though. I’ve spent 20 years making Chinese friends and contacts through work (and I have family in Hong Kong), and the long-standing China-US mobile relationship felt like friendly competition indeed. China buys Qualcomm chips, we buy Lenovo laptops … everything moves on.

During the years of Xi and Trump, things were really sour. While concerns about military backdoors in Huawei network equipment are genuine, the US’s use of sanctions to completely overwhelm Huawei’s consumer handset business (which did not have such backdoors) was merely pure mercantilism. Similarly, ZTE’s handsets were used as pawns in a larger US trade war strategy. We still have major Chinese players in our cell phone market (Motorola and TCL), as China has the Americans (Apple), but the interaction is less than it otherwise would have.

On the other side of the Pacific, I remember 5 to 10 years ago gradually more open-minded China now projects public diplomacy of a sly bully. China is using its “zero-Covid” policy to institute quarantine rules that will likely permanently put an end to international short-term business travel. Zero COVID is a good goal, but the result is a new Iron Curtain. It seems that a virtuous cycle of relationship has become a vicious circle of anger, which leads to hatred, with suffering in its path.

Another Cold War story creates a gloomier, grim, more tense and less connected world. One will see positive framing opportunities, with US chipset and software makers working hand-in-hand with Chinese hardware and app developers to bring benefits and improvements to everyone.

Instead, we’re going back to wondering if “Russians love their kids too.” I hope we get at least good 5G out of the deal.

What else happened this week?

  • I am in the process of reviewing the Samsung Galaxy S22 lineup. By now you may have read my review of the Galaxy S22 Ultra, but the Galaxy S22+ is probably the sweet spot this year.
  • I got very angry on “web3” this week. You cannot solve politics with technology. We’ve been trying for decades, and it doesn’t work.
  • OnwardMobility is not going to be a Blackberry. The BlackBerry brand, at least when it comes to phones, is probably dead.
  • AT&T’s 3G shutdown is coming February 22, and I’m surprised no federal agency has tried to stop it. It seems that the alarm industry… is worried.

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