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What If the Pentagon Skipped 5G?

The answer to the headaches and security risks of next-generation mobile communications just might be a technological leap past them.

It’s round one of a WWE-equivalent policy fight, and the Federal Communications Commission has beat the Pentagon. Against DoD objections, the FCC approved a license modification for Ligado Networks to establish a new 5G communications service last month. And while some Trump administration senior officials hailed this as a boon to U.S. firms vying to build the world’s 5G networks, others rightly argue that it imperils national security. 

This may come as some surprise. After all, the White House and Pentagon have loudly warned allies in recent years that information passing through 5G networking gear made by Huawei, the Chinese telecom giant, might be forwarded to Beijing’s intelligence agencies. (Some, like Britain, have judged that a risk worth taking, at least for the “non-sensitive” parts of the country’s next-generation networks.) Would it not make sense to encourage U.S. prowess in this key new technology?

Related: China Says It’s Developing 6G. What Does That Mean?

But, in fact, Ligado’s application was opposed by the Defense Secretary, the Air Force, a host of other federal departments, bipartisan senior members of the House and Senate Armed Services Committees, and parts of private industry to boot. The Pentagon is boldly attempting to have the decision reversed.

Defense leaders want 5G as much as anyone. But they also want to keep certain radio frequencies clear of interference as the new super-high-speed networks come on line. Ligado’s victory gives it the right to transmit data in the L band — 1 to 2 GHz — at frequencies that could interfere with the Global Positioning System, harming millions of civilian and military receivers that are crucial to everything from grocery delivery to airline flights to dropping bombs to monitoring the globe for enemy missile launches.

For months, the Pentagon has been testing ways to share its mid-band 5G spectrum with commercial industry. Ligado declined to wait, and its impatience could imperil a technology with near-incalculable benefits. 

Still, the company deserves some credit. It has lit a fire under the service chiefs to accelerate their collaboration with America’s 5G telecom firms. Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. David Goldfein has said, “There may be some ways to parcel and share that spectrum, but we cannot leave it.”

The solution — next-gen networking without Huawei and without undermining GPS  — may lie in yet another nascent technology. O-RAN, a software-driven network protocol that promises even faster and more secure mobile communications, is attracting private and Congressional interest. But if the Pentagon wants to hasten O-RAN’s arrival, and head off disruption, it needs to act, and fast.