When the internet was new, China made a strategic choice. It rejected the ideals of free expression that the global web has enabled. Rather than allow its citizens the right to read or say what they wanted online, Beijing erected a “Great Firewall” that controls its people’s access and their ability to express themselves on the web.
In recent years, China has been equally determined to dominate the market for the equipment through which the rest of the world accesses the internet. This includes not only phones and hand-held devices but also the network equipment that links all those devices together.
Defenders of Chinese companies like ZTE and Huawei insist that the free market should determine whose equipment makes up the bones and joints of the communication networks that enable modern life. But China exercises tight control over its companies, which gives the rest of the world ample reason to worry about a future in which most online traffic flows through equipment built under Beijing’s authority.
America’s challenge is that, even as Huawei was growing into the largest telecommunications equipment manufacturer in the world, U.S. telecommunications manufacturing withered. Once home to the most-important telecom equipment makers in the world, the U.S. is no longer even a significant player in the global market.
It is not the American way to subsidize our way back into an industry we’ve largely abandoned. We’re not good at it, and it wouldn’t be good for us. What America does have, in spades, is innovators who see technical problems as business opportunities. We need to change the game by accelerating domestic private investment in 5G and ensuring that these investments go toward building trusted networks that don’t rely on Chinese equipment.
The U.S. government plays a vital role because it controls access to the wireless spectrum and also owns a lot of it. Most government spectrum is underused day-to-day, and the Defense Department has already auctioned some off for private use. Today, the Pentagon is also considering a program that would solicit spectrum-sharing proposals from private businesses. Sharing agreements would allow commercial use most of the time, but with the possibility of immediate pre-emption if the military needs it. More private investment in telecommunications would support the strategic goal of ensuring that the internet remains free from Chinese domination without directly subsidizing American companies.
The Chinese have taken advantage of the top-down nature of their society to build a global equipment-making empire. America shouldn’t try to imitate them; we should use our strength against their weakness. American innovation and the investment that follows free enterprise could turn the tables on China. The future of the internet, and possibly much more, is at stake.
Ms. Wilson is president of the University of Texas at El Paso. She served as Air Force secretary (2017-19) and a U.S. representative from New Mexico (1998-2009).
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Appeared in the September 29, 2020, print edition.