The 5G spectrum row pitting the FAA and the airline industry against the FCC and wireless carriers is indicative of a broader U.S. failure to protect the digital access and privacy rights of their citizens.

During my time in the White House as Senior Director of Strategic Planning at the National Security Council (NSC), I raised this issue as an imminent threat to our national sovereignty and critical infrastructure. Treating the 5G electromagnetic spectrum like real estate to be auctioned off to the highest bidder deprives the American people of what should be administered as a commons.

Compare how we waste spectrum in the United States to President Dwight Eisenhower’s approach to building the Interstate Highway System (IHS) in the 1950s. The primary goal of the IHS project was to provide the means to quickly evacuate cities in the event of a nuclear attack. It also served as a conduit for commercial transportation and allowed workers to travel longer distances. We did not create a road network for the military and another for civilians and businesses; we have invested in a single shared resource.

The same should be true for America’s Information Highway. Although the term may seem antiquated, its potential is as real as when ARPANET was created in the 1960s as a Pentagon-funded project to enable computers at military research institutes to communicate over telephone lines. Once again, what was intended as a national defense initiative became a public service that formed the foundations of today’s Internet.

The problem with the evolution of the Internet is that we now have multiple privatized, often incompatible and inefficient digital traffic lanes that are run purely for profit. It has created a digital traffic jam – a toll road to poor service – as the American public pays among the highest wireless subscription rates in the world for some of the slowest data speeds. By “selling” something as ephemeral as spectrum, the US government discourages the telecommunications industry from sharing, even when a particular slice of spectrum may sit idle 90% of the time.

The airline industry’s apoplectic response to the launch of 5G service near their airports was born out of concerns that C-band frequencies could interfere with radio altimeters and compromise pilots’ ability to land safely. It also featured a perfect storm brought on by hoarding of 5G spectrum, an aviation industry’s failure to innovate, and political stasis in Washington DC.

As a former B2 bomber pilot, I witnessed how the lack of innovation forced the airline industry to retain a rigid star model where aircraft routes and altitudes are ” controlled” to avoid collisions, but lack the inherent intelligence to route safely. themselves.

Smart, intuitive aircraft require common spectrum, advanced computer technology, and artificial intelligence technology that allows vehicles in the air – and on the ground – to communicate with each other in real time and take appropriate action. Grouped frequency bands and time slicing allow radio waveforms to be assigned to multiple users and could usher in new applications, as demonstrated by other countries. Despite – or perhaps because of – its authoritarian political doctrine, China understands the utility of shared spectrum, allowing it to open an even greater lead in the race to roll out 5G. The same goes for Singapore and the United Arab Emirates, with the latter leaning into the future with a rollout plan. a fleet of autonomous air taxis starting this year, which will be partly based on spectrum sharing.

The challenge for the United States is the institutionalized nature of how we license and manage spectrum. Effecting change will require strong and focused leadership – not just from the US government, but through extensive collaboration between public and private entities, including wireless service providers.

The electromagnetic spectrum belongs to the American people. It should not be sold as a commodity on the open market.

This is the position I took when I worked at the White House NSC.

To demonstrate how volatile this opinion is, the plan I created advocated a public-private partnership that shares and taxes spectrum while strengthening our exposed wireless infrastructure and securing our data. The mechanism as proposed would have created trillions of new dollars in AI-based productivity – more than enough to deliver a profitable return on the wireless industry’s legacy investments. Instead, my report was leaked to media and detrimentally distorted by falsely claiming that my intention was to “nationalize” the American 5G network. This couldn’t be further from the truth and actually undermined the very purpose of building a secure and resilient IT and communications infrastructure that would better protect our citizens and our troops.

It’s not too late for government and industry to collaborate on a solution that drives economic growth, improves national security, and gives the American public the ability to see and understand how their digital information acts and is used in a time they are published and transmitted. But America is on the precipice. We can leap into the information age today by investing in the technology needed to compete in an economy defined by AI and autonomy or continue to fall behind.

Brig. Gen. Robert S. Spalding (USAF Ret.), is principal investigator at the Hudson Institute, focusing on US-China relations, economic and national security, and Asia-Pacific military balance. He is the former White House National Security Council Senior Director for Strategic Planning and has held senior positions in strategy and diplomacy in the Departments of Defense and State for more than 26 years. He is also the founder and CEO of SEMPERwhich provides secure and private 5G. He is the author of the book “Stealth Warfare: How China Seized Power While America’s Elite Slept.”