Why Does 5G Matter in Developing Countries? | Opinion

For decades, America's friends in the developing world saw United States foreign assistance in the form of funds for food, public health and support for civic reforms and democratic institutions. They thought of the United States Agency for International Development only as humanitarian assistance and relief. Today, they see USAID and foreign assistance on their mobile phones.

That's because America's foreign assistance has undergone a major transformation in priority areas. While we still serve in a global humanitarian role, we also are active in an area that was unheard of a decade ago—the development and adoption of next-generation telecommunications and mobile technology, including 5G. Americans need to understand why this is so important.

The simplest answer is that in today's global economy, especially one in upheaval thanks to the Chinese Communist Party's (CCP) cover up of the COVID-19 outbreak, secure and fast telecommunications networks are essential to a nation's prosperity. Today, there is a global race to deploy and shape the 5G mobile telecommunications ecosystem. The technology promises to greatly expand the number and nature of devices that connect to the mobile internet and can allow an emerging nation to rapidly expand its use of digital technology in all industries.

People all over the world will feel the impact in small but important ways. Faster download speeds make it easier for a child in a Nigerian village to video chat with a teacher in the capital city. More robust systems allow doctors in India to analyze x-rays faster. Mobile money transactions will be more secure in Colombia. Public sector services will be more responsive worldwide. This can all happen—if the technology is allowed to be inclusive, open and secure.

Sadly, not everyone shares our goals.

Beijing's 5G offering is anchored by companies like Huawei and ZTE—tools of the CCP's surveillance state. Any nation that adopts Chinese technology will, in effect, allow Beijing access to all of its communications and data including vital and top-secret information kept by governments as well as the personal and financial information of people throughout the developing world.

Huawei 5G
A shop for Chinese telecom giant Huawei features a red sticker reading "5G" in Beijing (Photo by NICOLAS ASFOURI / AFP) Getty

The CCP's distribution of this technology to developing nations could be a human rights catastrophe on a global scale. This is one of the many reasons President Trump is leading a global campaign to stop the spread of untrusted network equipment around the world.

In America's foreign assistance work, we have made an active case to other nations that they are better off going with technologies developed by trusted firms in the U.S. and allied countries. This is part of what I call our national drive to on-shore, near-shore and allied-shore manufacturing, production and management of global networks.

In doing so, we are making the case for the American model for technological innovation. American technology, unlike Beijing's, does not emerge from a central planning process. It is often organic and even sometimes serendipitous, yielding benefits that couldn't have been foreseen or even hoped for. Results of invention often cannot be predicted. That is the American model in a nutshell.

The fact that Huawei's 5G systems may be hamstrung by lack of access to American technology proves the point—and President Trump, to his credit, is reminding the CCP of that fact.

Moreover, President Trump has made it a priority to double down on America's investment in advanced technology research in emerging areas like quantum computing and artificial intelligence. American innovation remains one of the best ways we can invest in American global leadership and security. And it is increasingly going to be the basis of our assistance to nations trying to rise out of poverty and approach self-reliance.

Most of all, we want emerging nations to adopt a model for technological innovation that mirrors our own: Open-ended, intellectually curious, private-sector led, iterative, competitive and rooted in the rigors and opportunities of the free market. That's the path of development we champion and for which I am certain America will always be known.

Bonnie Glick is the Deputy Administrator of the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) and a former executive at International Business Machines (IBM).

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.