One morning in 2016, staffers from the National Security Council and the Office of the U.S. Chief Technology Officer boarded a black van outside the West Wing. They were on a field trip to the State Department led by U.S. CTO Megan Smith. Smith, a technology visionary and former Google vice president, once worked at General Magic, the Silicon Valley firm that in the early 1990s first brought together the component technologies of the smartphone. Apple later productized General Magic’s innovations in the 2007 release of the iPhone, which brought the power of computing and reach of the Internet into the palm of our hand, revolutionizing how we live and work and laying the foundation for industries of the future, including today’s “Internet of Things,” which by 2020 comprised 31 billion devices worldwide.
The White House staffers Smith led on their field trip were on their way to visit the Global Engagement Center, or GEC, in State Department parlance, a new unit created to help fight the influence war against the Islamic State. While smartphones powered the American economy to new heights as the introduction of 4G became widespread, this same set of technologies was being used by ISIS to establish a modern-day caliphate across Syria and Iraq. Slick ISIS social media posts drew thousands of recruits into its ranks, leading the State Department to counterattack with its own campaign of online messaging. It was a digital war that was a part of a physical war, with the GEC as the nerve center of the United States’ response in the virtual domain. The GEC’s mission was to monitor social media worldwide and organize a U.S. information counter-offensive to push back against ISIS’s outlandish claims post by post, tweet by tweet, person by person, depriving the terrorist group of the myths it used to draw new adherents.
It took all of ten minutes for the NSC-CTO group to realize the GEC would not be joining the pantheon of U.S. government technology success stories. Megan Smith quickly identified flaws in metrics the GEC used to track its social media engagement and was astonished to learn GEC’s central monitoring dashboard was not updated in real time, a core practice of any U.S. social media or internet firm. The State Department had broadcast its ambitions to bring the skill of Google, Facebook, and Twitter to bear in the fight against ISIS. Yet it never resourced the GEC on anything of the scale that would have been needed to achieve this mission. Then there were outdated privacy laws that did not permit the State Department to track public social media handles of U.S. citizens, the inability of the Department to contract with top vendors in technology, and an overall lack of relevant expertise on the GEC’s staff.
The nation that invented the Internet, the smartphone, and social media seemed powerless in 2016 to mobilize these same tools within its own government against a barbaric adversary that had hijacked them for violent ends. Fifteen years after 9/11 kicked off a transformation of homeland and national security agencies to defeat Islamic terrorists, the State department was unable to leverage a U.S. platform technology to advance a top foreign policy objective. It was ultimately the U.S. bombing campaign and Kurdish paramilitaries that brought ISIS to heel, with GEC counter-narratives barely denting ISIS’s social media mobilization.
As the GEC worked its way into a historical footnote, a far more consequential battle for platform technology was underway in the global adoption of 5G technology. By 2020, China had deployed 15 times the number of 5G base stations as the United States. Unlike the GEC, which was merely an illustration of the U.S. government’s inability to use a key platform technology for its own ends, the contest over 5G involved billions of dollars in a worldwide race for the future of the global telecommunications market. Though U.S. firms pioneered the development and deployment of 4G technologies, China is on track to capture dominant global market share in 5G hardware and applications. As former Google CEO Eric Schmidt notes, 5G stands to be the first “platform technology” race the United States will lose to China, creating a structural deficit in U.S. economic competitive- ness that in a worst-case scenario could tip overall innovation leadership globally in the set of future industries 5G will enable.
While the causes of the 5G failure are many, the original sin is how the U.S. government allocates spectrum be- tween civilian and military uses. With few incentives to optimize allocation across the civilian spectrum managed by the Federal Communication Commission and the federal spectrum managed by the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA), U.S. technology companies were relegated to developing 5G on an inferior band in which signal travels a shorter distance. China and the rest of the world did not make this same mistake. As a result, both U.S. telcos and the U.S. military are on track to be left behind by the global adoption of mid-band spectrum as the dominant 5G wavelength. It was as if the government mandated Betamax in the VCR wars of the 1980s even as its experts knew VHS was the superior technology—an error of strategy that locked U.S. firms into second place before competition began in global markets.
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