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This Perspective describes some of the technical aspects of the global competition to deploy fifth-generation telecommunications technology (5G). 5G technology offers the prospect of much faster and more reliable wireless communications that connect a higher number of devices than ever before, with a wide variety of potential applications from industrial automation to virtual reality to connected autonomous vehicles. The United States is not currently at the forefront of 5G deployment, and it faces significant challenges in allocating sufficient electromagnetic spectrum and ensuring a reliable supply of radio access network (RAN) equipment from domestic companies or allied nations. However, the United States remains at the forefront of other aspects of the complex and global 5G ecosystem, such as mobile applications development; smartphone modems; and science, technology, engineering, and mathematics talent. In this Perspective, authors discuss the global state of play in several aspects of the 5G ecosystem (e.g., spectrum availability, the supply chain for hardware and software components, and applications) as of June 2020, and raise several issues for policymakers to consider. 5G technology will roll out gradually over the course of the next decade, and there remains significant uncertainty about its eventual applications and which nations will gain technical leadership and the resulting economic and security benefits. Therefore, the authors believe that policymakers should not view the technical development of 5G as a race that one nation will "win" in the near term, but should promote the United States' long-term technical competitiveness in this area.

Funding for this research was made possible by the independent research and development provisions of RAND’s contracts for the operation of its U.S. Department of Defense federally funded research and development centers. This research was conducted by the Management, Technology, and Capabilities Program within RAND Homeland Security Research Division.

This publication is part of the RAND Corporation Perspective series. RAND Perspectives present expert insights on timely policy issues. All RAND Perspectives undergo peer review to ensure high standards for quality and objectivity.

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