Technological leadership by the United States requires forethought and organization. The plan necessary to maintain that leadership—a national technology strategy—should be broad in scope. Its range includes investments in research, nurturing human talent, revamping government offices and agencies, and ensuring that laws, regulations, and incentives provide private industry with the ability and opportunity to compete fairly and effectively on the merits of their products, capabilities, and know-how. Given that key inputs are diffused globally, this plan must also carefully consider how the United States can effectively partner with other tech-leading democracies for mutual economic and security benefit. This includes taking measures to promote norms for technology use that align with shared values.
In the context of strategic competition with China, the need to craft new approaches to technology development and deployment is increasingly apparent to government leaders. Many lawmakers grasped the stark reality that U.S. technological preeminence was eroding when they realized that China had become a global juggernaut in telecommunications, a situation exacerbated by Beijing’s push to dominate global fifth generation (5G) wireless networks. The state of play poses national and economic security risks to the United States, which, along with its allies and partners in the Indo-Pacific and Europe, has made notable headway in addressing and mitigating these risks. However, much work remains. Chinese firms continue to push for greater digital entanglement around the world, from Southeast Asia to Africa to Latin America. Given the fundamental importance to the digital economy of communications networks and the standards that govern them, the more successful Beijing’s policies are, the greater the challenge for tech-leading democracies to maintain their economic competitiveness. There is also the specter of norms. If these are dominated by illiberal actors, their power to shape how networks are used and to manipulate data flows poses threats to liberal democratic values the world over.
The more successful Beijing’s policies are, the greater the challenge for tech-leading democracies to maintain their economic competitiveness.
It is time for tech-leading democracies to heed lessons from the 5G experience to prepare for what comes next, known as Beyond 5G technologies and 6G, the sixth generation of wireless. With telecommunications operators around the world still in the early stages of rolling out 5G, it is reasonable to ask why policymakers should focus now on 6G technologies that are not expected to be commercialized until around 2030. One reason is that governments of leading technology powers have already crafted various visions and strategic plans for 6G. Myriad research efforts, though nascent, are under way. Second, the 5G experience shows that belated attention to global developments in telecommunications resulted in vexing geopolitical problems that could have been better mitigated, or perhaps in some cases avoided altogether. Finally, because communications technologies are of fundamental importance to economic and national security, prudent and proactive policymaking in the early stages of technological development will help ensure that the United States and its allies and partners are well positioned to reap the benefits while countering the capabilities of adversarial competitors, most notably China.
To secure America’s 6G future, the U.S. executive and legislative branches should act on an array of issues. First and foremost is setting a road map for American leadership in 6G. This framework will then inform the scope and scale of the actions needed to make that vision a reality. The necessary actions range from investing in research and development (R&D) to developing infrastructure to initiating novel tech diplomacy.
Promote American Competitiveness in 6G
The White House should:
- Craft a 6G strategy. The United States needs a strategic road map that lays out a vision for American leadership in 6G and the desired international and domestic telecommunications landscape of 2030 and beyond.
- Expand R&D funding for 6G technologies. The White House should explore opportunities for additional 6G R&D funding through research grants, tax credits, and financial support.
- Leverage existing capabilities for testing, verification, and experimentation of 6G technologies. The White House, working with the interagency Networking and Information Technology Research and Development Program, can establish government 6G testbeds (in the laboratory and field) to support and build upon 5G R&D.
- Open additional experimental spectrum licenses to accelerate R&D efforts.
- Establish a U.S. 6G Spectrum Working Group. The working group should identify spectrum needs for 6G rollouts and offer recommendations for spectrum access and management.
- Promote the development of new 6G use cases by using the purchasing power of the U.S. government.
- Designate the Department of Commerce a U.S. intelligence community (IC) member. Closer ties to the IC will improve information-sharing on foreign technology policy developments, such as adversaries’ strategies for challenging the integrity of standard-setting institutions. This action will also integrate the Department of Commerce’s analytical expertise and understanding of private industry into the IC.
- Enact R&D funding to solve challenges for rural 6G development. 6G offers an opportunity to develop alternatives to traditional hardware such as fiber-optic cables, for example wireless optic solutions or non-terrestrial platforms, that can fill network gaps to more readily connect rural areas.
- Attract and retain much-needed foreign science and technology talent by initiating immigration reform, such as by raising the cap for H-1B visas, eliminating the cap for advanced STEM degree holders, and amending the Department of Labor Schedule A occupations list so that it includes high-skilled technologists.
The National Science Foundation should:
- Create an equivalent of its Resilient & Intelligent NextG Systems (RINGS) program for start-ups. RINGS, supported by government and major industry partners, offers grants for higher education institutions to find solutions for NextG resilience.1
- Expand the Platforms for Advanced Wireless Research Program, a consortium of city-scale research testbeds, so that it includes software innovation hubs.2
Collaborate with Allies and Partners
- Create a Technology Partnership Office at the Department of State. A new office, headed by an assistant secretary for technology, is needed to initiate, maintain, and expand international technology partnerships.
The White House should:
- Organize an international 6G Policy and Security Conference series. U.S. policymakers should work with foreign counterparts of the techno-democracies to organize regular 6G conferences to discuss key issues including technology development, security, standard setting, and spectrum.
The White House, with the support of Congress, should:
- Lead the creation of a Multilateral Digital Development Bank. In partnership with export credit and export finance entities in allied countries, the United States should lead in establishing a new organization with the mission of promoting secure and fair digital infrastructure development around the world.
The State Department should:
- Spearhead a tech diplomacy campaign. The United States and allied governments should craft clear and consistent messaging to the Majority World about the risks of using technologies from techno-autocracies, especially China.
Ensure the Security of 6G Networks
The Federal Communications Commission, with the support of relevant agencies, should:
- Identify, develop, and apply security principles for 6G infrastructure and networks. A proactive approach, with partners in industry and academia, should be undertaken to identify 6G security risks and ensure that international standards have cyber protections.
The White House and Congress should:
- Promote and support the development of open and interoperable technologies. Coordinated outreach, joint testing, industry engagement, and policy collaboration can build global momentum and communicate risks associated with untrusted vendors.
- Create a 6G security fund, building on existing efforts to ensure 5G security. This fund could be established in concert with the activities of the proposed Multilateral Digital Development Bank.
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- “NSF-Led, Multi-Sector Partnership Will Support Research That Leads to Superior Communication Networks and Systems,” National Science Foundation, press release, April 27, 2021, https://www.nsf.gov/news/special_reports/announcements/042721.jsp. ↩
- "About PAWR,” Platforms for Advanced Wireless Research, https://advancedwireless.org/about-pawr. ↩
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