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A Plan to Turn Military Bases Into ‘Sandboxes’ for 5G

The US government thinks the military could help whip the country’s 5G industry into shape.

Michael Kratsios, the acting undersecretary of defense for research and engineering, Thursday laid out a plan to turn US military bases into sandboxes for 5G experimentation. He also described a vision for advancing US military use of 5G, microelectronics, and artificial intelligence technology to counter one big threat—China.

“An emboldened and increasingly aggressive Chinese Communist Party is building and deploying some of the most advanced weapons,” Kratsios said in remarks prepared for a virtual event hosted by Georgetown University. He said China is using its “newfound economic and technological power to undermine our safety, our security, and our freedom.”

5G is the much-ballyhooed new wireless technology that promises download speeds of up to a gigabit per second—more than 20 times faster than today’s networks—as well as lower latency and much more capacity for devices.

Backers hope 5G will enable a new generation of smartphones and propel advances in manufacturing, autonomous driving, medicine, and other industries. But the rollout has been slower in the US than in some other countries, and the government is concerned about falling behind or seeing billion-dollar companies emerge elsewhere to take advantage of 5G, especially in China.

Kratsios, who also serves as the US government’s chief technology officer and as an adviser to President Trump on technology matters, says using military bases to test 5G will help companies surmount usual regulatory requirements. Companies will be invited to experiment with software for managing 5G networks as well as specific applications using 5G such as augmented reality.

“If one of our telecom companies wants to do a test in, say, Reno, Nevada, the amount of regulatory hurdles they need to go through is extraordinarily daunting and bureaucratic,” he told WIRED ahead of the speech. “The DOD can be a home for testing technologies that could have massive upside to [military] deployment, but also for the nation at large.”

Kratsios believes the effort will allow the Pentagon to gauge the military potential of 5G, for example in controlling drones or allowing for remote surgery, while also spurring American tech companies to develop competitive 5G offerings. Currently, the best 5G hardware comes from manufacturers in China and Europe. “This is about finding domestic alternatives to Huawei, Nokia, and Ericsson, ones that play to the software strengths of the United States,” Kratsios told WIRED.

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Kratsios said 5G networks in the US should be built on “software-driven architecture standards.” Promoting the use of open standards would make it more difficult for Huawei or any other company to lock users into one platform, and could let US software companies play a role in defining critical features.

The US government has targeted Huawei, widely considered a world leader in 5G, with sanctions designed to cut off its supply of critical components. It has also pushed other countries to ban Huawei’s equipment from their networks. The US accuses the company of stealing intellectual property and says its close ties to the Chinese government make it a security risk. In recent weeks, the administration has upped its actions aimed at countering China’s technological prowess and advantage, threatening to ban the Chinese-owned social apps TikTok and WeChat.

In his role at the DOD, Kratsios oversees the department’s research and defense budget, as well as innovation focused divisions including the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, which funds blue-sky research related to national security.

In his Georgetown speech, Kratsios laid out a vision of the US locked in a high-stakes battle with China for supremacy in economic, technological, military, and ideological spheres. To stay ahead, he said, the US military needs to work more closely with the tech industry.