Beyond 5G — Towards a Policy Framework For 6G and The Future of Connectivity

By Jonathan Spalter

Note: Keynote address originally delivered to the Government of Japan’s Beyond 5G Promotion Consortium’s 2021 International Conference in Japan.

Amerika kara no go aisatsu (greetings from the United States).

I am Jonathan Spalter, President and CEO of USTelecom — The Broadband Association. I am honored to have the opportunity to speak to you today about my vision for a global policy framework to achieve our shared connectivity goal: the accelerated deployment of next-generation, high-speed broadband networks that are foundational for 5G, 6G and beyond, and will connect people, businesses, and governments around the world.

USTelecom represents broadband innovators, here in the United States and beyond. Our members are at the cutting edge of the global connectivity revolution providing a full array of services and technologies over wireline and wireless networks.

Despite the first two letters of our name, USTelecom’s membership and perspective are truly global.

We are pleased to count both NTT and NEC as USTelecom members.

These companies are leaders in the deployment and adoption of 5G solutions and dedicated and reliable partners to USTelecom in promoting global connectedness and innovation.

Today I will share with you what I believe is a unique opportunity for our two nations [United States and Japan] — who share a common value system and an equal commitment to improving the livelihoods of our citizens and the global community.

With predictable advances across all of the sciences, including the technologies being discussed at your conference, our two governments and our respective industries have a rare opportunity to nurture a level of collaboration and professional partnership that is essential to harness human energy in service of our highest ideals.

I will share my thoughts on how we might construct a bridge between this grand vision and the concrete foundational and policy building blocks that will determine success or failure.

As we embark on building these business and policy foundations for 5G and beyond, we need to be both humble and bold.

Humble in knowing that predictions about future technologies and their ramifications can be subject to mockery with hindsight.

In 1876, the President of Western Union — the telegraph company — said the new device called the telephone: “has too many shortcomings to be seriously considered as a means of communication.”

Flash forward 110 years… and Microsoft’s President Steve Balmer famously predicted the iPhone would never get much market share.

We all know how that went…

But the history of innovation also tells us that boldness is our path forward.

As the Japanese proverb tells us: ”If you do not enter the tiger’s cave, you will not catch its cub.”

Truly great success is rarely achieved without some corresponding measure of risk.

So, as we look at the world today, it is clear that powerful and accelerating forces are placing enormous stress on institutions of every type, on our environment, how we govern ourselves, how we work, how we raise our families, and how we adapt to technological change.

Our success in harnessing these new technologies for the benefit of all humanity will depend in large part on building the right policy frameworks and working with the right partners in industry and in government.

As technological advances accelerate exponentially, we will no longer have the luxury of long planning horizons.

We must recognize that the policy, regulatory and business norms in place today must adapt to a hyper-dynamic business, social and political environment. That is as true in the United States as it is in Japan, especially as 6G applications already come into focus, and deployment is anticipated to be one decade away.

In a recent study, McKinsey estimated that by 2030 there will be two billion new users coming online, generating another $1.5 — $2 trillion in global GDP — mostly in the developing world — due in part to network expansion and growing affordability of devices and services.

The report recognizes the United States, Japan and South Korea as “pioneering countries” but notes China is building out the backbone for fixed and cellular networks at a faster rate than any other country with the aim of offering 5G in all major cities by 2025. India is digitizing faster than any trailing market. Still, in many places, investment has yet to materialize at the scale of the opportunity.

A recent Bain & Company report provides additional context for some of the more significant challenges telecommunications companies face. Key among them? Managing the infrastructure supplier network in light of geopolitical tensions while trade conflicts and cybersecurity concerns are affecting the role of Chinese manufacturers in network buildouts in many regions of the world. The report also notes telecom companies are likely to face questions from investors, employees and business partners about long-term strategies to meet global challenges involving sustainability.

To complete the picture, we may add privacy, cybersecurity, trans-border data flows and trust concerns as each of these interdependent domains can create friction and undermine the necessity for seamless global connectivity.

This is a world of dizzying change and rapid innovation.

“Disruptive” technology has a positive connotation in the venture capital arena and in places like Silicon Valley and the Global Base Cities being developed in Japan.

It means game-changing advances in efficiency, business productivity and economic and social development. It means growth and opportunity for lots of companies, their workers and the communities they serve.

The communications sector is at the center of this battle for the future. Disruption is a good thing, but we must ensure disruptive technology brings social and political dynamism and social connectivity — not the isolation, inequality and economic tumult seen in recent years. We must also be wary of drifting toward a “surveillance state” — a dystopia that many thoughtful people see in a future metaverse of augmented and virtual reality, where the line between the physical and virtual worlds is blurred — if it’s noticeable at all.

All eyes are on 6G — which will use higher frequencies than 5G and is expected to support data rates of 1 terabyte per second and microsecond latency communications — and how it will facilitate massive improvements in imaging, presence technology and location awareness. It will make the environment much more contextually aware, devices more seamless, and networks more autonomous. As such, 6G will present important issues regarding privacy and security — and trust — even more than in the ubiquitous connectivity environment of the 5G era. It is here — privacy and cybersecurity, touchstones of both 5G and 6G — that we should work towards even more of a global emphasis on harmonization of best practices for cross-border data transfers and more.

These capabilities should prompt us to ensure that the world of 6G serves all of humanity — not just those who hold positions of power or who have accumulated the most resources.

The world is at a fork in the road with regard to how governments, businesses, academia and citizens interact with each other. We are seeing the intrusion of government in the marketplace in different but concerning ways.

The extreme version of this is how China, Russia and other authoritarian governments are charting one path based on top-down, command-and-control planning of the economy and intrusive social control of their businesses and populations via big data and AI-enabled surveillance that would make Big Brother blush.

The other path is ours — the dynamic, free market competition, permission-less innovation, and freedom of expression and belief that the United States, Japan and our post-World War II allies have nurtured and advanced for decades.

It’s a model that should favor true public-private partnership and collaboration. The world’s future will be determined by whether this model of competitive, expansive free market democracy can harness human ingenuity and progress to prevail over the command-and-control, restrictive structures of authoritarian governments.

Which path will prevail is a matter of choice and not a forgone conclusion. Countries like the United States and Japan have a decision to make, and it’s not always clear which direction we are leaning. In the U.S., some voices are calling for government actions that would compete with the private sector. Some are advocating for providing federal and state funding preferences for government-owned broadband networks or for the Defense Department to dictate how, where and by who spectrum for next generation networks is used.

Sometimes the path you take simply depends on your destination. Where do we want to go? We want to end up in a world where 6G by design is more ubiquitously available and promises economic growth to all parts of society. 6G cannot sort the world into haves and have-nots. We need to think globally about 6G use cases to address global needs.

The Path Forward

We have a lot of work ahead of us. Apart from all the hard thinking, there is the hard doing.

We have three main things to do:

  1. increase investment in our core wired broadband backbone;
  2. expand competition, and;
  3. reduce barriers to deployment.

(1) Increase Incentives for Investment

Policy debates and headlines are often dominated by the amount of investment that industry has devoted to building and sustaining connectivity infrastructure. And rightly so. Today’s high-speed networks would not exist without staggering investment and effort by private industry. In the U.S. alone, broadband capital expenditures reached U.S. $80 billion last year. But we can’t take our foot off the gas pedal.

To ensure these investments are leveraged effectively, industry and government must work as mutually beneficial partners and investors at each stage in the lifespan of next-generation networks — from R&D, to deployment, to innovation. Particularly in light of the pandemic era’s unprecedented demand — likely now permanent and increasing — for secure, reliable connectivity and remote work capabilities, it should be clear to all policymakers and industry leaders that investment in broadband is in both the public and private interest.

“Public-private partnership” is not just a policy buzzword. It matters. Deep collaboration and shared investment is absolutely indispensable to secure, reliable connectivity. It simply cannot be achieved through government OR private sector investment alone.

This is one reason why USTelecom created the Council to Secure the Digital Economy, a partnership to governments worldwide that has spearheaded groundbreaking private sector cross-sectoral cooperative action for the security of the Internet of Things and cybersecurity incident response.

This type of collaborative partnership should be leveraged to advance broadband innovation through public-private testing initiatives and R&D.

For example, the U.S. Department of Defense’s 5G testbeds have provided dozens of opportunities for private sector companies to deploy and test 5G applications in particular use cases such as factories and warehouses that will be valuable for both the U.S. government and business interests worldwide.

Further, the $2 billion in grant funding for the Public Wireless Innovation Fund and the Multilateral Telecommunications Security Fund, contained in the pending U.S. Innovation and Competition Act, will provide for breakthrough innovations in the United States and abroad.

Alongside the massive private capital investments that industry makes every year on broadband infrastructure, governments also have a key role to play in funding deployment, particularly in areas of the world that remain unserved. Bringing high-speed internet connectivity to rural areas is a challenge that we must meet. The $65 billion for broadband deployment recently approved in Washington is potentially game changing for millions of households in unserved or underserved communities in the United States.

(2) Expand Competition

The investment and innovation driving global communications technology are a direct product of competition. Broadband providers deploying all sorts of technologies are competing around the world. Recent technological advancements and marketplace entry from new providers is further bolstering competition between fixed and mobile broadband services and driving innovation in quality and security.

However, we cannot take competition for granted. Our economic security and the long-term sustainability of the investments we are making in broadband infrastructure depends on a diverse and competitive marketplace.

While there have been some troubling trends in recent decades, such as increasing consolidation of the equipment vendor market and some government backed “national champion” vendors undertaking approaches that appear to be aimed at eliminating competition, I have a hopeful view of the future of competition in global communications — including in 5G and beyond.

First, the development and maturation of private sector driven consensus technical standards for 5G, Open Radio Access Networks (RAN), and other aspects of next generation communications break down barriers to entry for new innovators, prevent “vendor lock-in” and allow for interoperability and specialization. In short, technical standardization facilitates competition.

We cannot allow nation-state dominance of global private sector standards bodies. International bodies which are member state or government-led should seek like-minded government partners to reform the structure and working methods, and to focus on the appropriate technology within the scope of the organization. Reform could include enabling cooperative relationships with other expert organizations, such as the liaison relationship between 3GPP and ITU-R WP5D.

Similarly, forward-looking governments should partner with like-minded ones to promote the importance of the industry-led global standards/specification development model by underscoring its value in driving past innovations such as the wireless revolution which connected billions of people in developing countries.

5G and future generations of communications are enabled largely through cloud and software-based technologies whose markets and innovations are highly competitive and fast-moving. These technologies of the future are where the United States, Japan and our allies will predominate.

One other point: The global market consisting of trusted suppliers and network operators based in free market democracies like the United States, Japan and other allied countries is large and dynamic. It is not an adversarial race like that between the United States and China. It is and must continue to be a promising competition among innovative companies operating in markets that promote the rule of law, intellectual policy and free market competition.

(3) Reduce Barriers to Deployment

Finally, we must contend with the well-documented barriers to deployment that constrain the benefits of investment and competition. Deployment barriers are not limited to the wireless components of current or future networks. Freeing up access to spectrum is a clear priority, but next generation networks cannot and will not operate without fiber backhaul. In the United States, we support lifting regulatory barriers to speed the deployment of wireline, fiber-based networks.

Some barriers exist at the local level — unreasonable zoning restrictions, onerous permitting processes, construction moratoriums and restrictions on antenna placement — all make the very act of constructing networks slower, more costly and difficult. These barriers block investment and innovation, and damage our shared interest in secure, reliable, ubiquitous connectivity.

These concerns are not unique to the United States. Some are globally systemic — including those we saw in the pandemic. The supply chain disruptions that have affected our industry, particularly regarding semiconductors, are acute. Global leaders in industry and government must address these challenges in a thoughtful and well-coordinated manner.

The recent discussions at the G-20 and ongoing work between governments and industries through the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue among the United States, Japan, India and Australia offer a productive path forward.

The removal of these barriers is urgent — but fortunately, it is also achievable, provided it occurs in a coordinated, uniform manner around the globe, with public-private engagement.

Putting this policy framework into practice is not an abstract exercise. In fact, USTelecom members like Japan’s NTT and NEC are among of the great global champions of the sort of private engagement with policymakers that is required to promote investment and competition and to remove barriers to deployment.

Our experience demonstrates that concrete mechanisms for global, public-private partnership are already in place.

Now we must simply commit to using them.

Domo arigato gozaimasu (thank you very much.)

Jonathan Spalter is President and CEO of USTelecom — The Broadband Association.

USTelecom | The Broadband Association

Representing telecommunications providers, innovators, suppliers, and manufacturers committed to connecting the world through the power of broadband.