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5G will be the next revolution in global communications, but the U.S. may be left behind

Michael Hiltzik, Los Angeles Times on

Published in Business News

In late 2017, Susan Crawford was visiting Seoul, South Korea, about six months before it hosted the 2018 Winter Olympics.

Although she's an expert in telecommunications policy, Crawford was stunned at what she witnessed in Korea, which she describes as "the most wired nation on the planet" -- flawless cellphone coverage even in rural areas, real-time data transmission, driverless buses using the latest communications technology to smoothly avoid pedestrians and evade obstructions.

"I've never been embarrassed to be American before," Crawford told me recently. "But when Korean people tell you that going to America is like taking a rural vacation, it really makes you stop and worry about what we're up to."

Crawford, who teaches at Harvard Law School, has assembled her concerns, along with suggestions how to alleviate them, in a new book published this week entitled "Fiber: The Coming Tech Revolution -- and Why America Might Miss It." it's a follow-up to her 2013 book "Captive Audience," which warned that the nation's global leadership in internet technology was being frittered away by placing tech policy in the hands of profit-seeking companies with no incentive to keep the U.S. on the leading edge.

"Fiber" describes how that trend has intensified. The risk is even greater today, Crawford writes, because the data-carrying capacity of the next generation of fiber-optics, known as "5G" (as the fifth generation of wireless telecommunications technology), will give countries that invest in those advanced networks a huge advantage over those that don't. It's 100 times faster than the existing 4G technology and far more capacious, allowing simultaneous connections of billions of devices.

Which countries are investing in the technology? For one, China, which is planning to cover 80 percent of its residences and businesses with 5G connectivity by 2025. "While the leaders of the USA and China rant and rave at one another, Western companies continue to work closely with those in China, aware that 5G will be a global platform," observed tech analysts at ReThink Research last month. "In the run-up to 5G, it has been China's operators, especially China Mobile, which have been a driving force."

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As Crawford reports, America's experience with trying to bring fiber to its homes and businesses isn't auspicious. Only about 10 percent of the nation's 119 million households subscribe to high-speed fiber services, and 75 percent of census blocks have no access to residential fiber at all. Households with fiber connections tend to be located in the most densely developed and richest parts of the country -- America's "digital divide" has turned into a chasm.

This has happened, Crawford writes, because the U.S. hasn't turned the building of its optical fiber infrastructure into a national imperative -- that is, government-supervised -- as it did its highways, airports, dams and bridges. She draws comparisons to the government initiative to bring electrification to rural communities in the 1920s and 1930s.

Electrification, she writes, "followed a set pattern: municipal buildings and businesses first, wealthy urban dwellers next, then poorer urban dwellers, and last of all, rural homes and farms." That commercial model resulted in 90 percent of farmers in the 1930s lacking electric power and even poorer sections of thriving cities lacking appliances we take for granted -- refrigerators, electric cooking and heating. One result was the rise of public power systems, just as one result of the spotty rollout of fiber connectivity today is the emergence of municipal broadband.

By ceding telecommunications infrastructure to big, monopolistic carriers such as Comcast, Verizon and AT&T, the U.S. government has effectively given up its role in information technology policy, Crawford says. The Federal Communications Commission -- under President Obama as well as President Trump, allowed the companies to develop vertically integrated systems in which they own the distribution systems as well as the content moving over those systems; Comcast owns NBC Universal, AT&T owns Time Warner properties including CNN and Warner Bros., and Verizon owns Huffington Post, Yahoo, and other former AOL properties.

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