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Politics

‘We need to make sure that the next Steve Jobs is somewhere in the US’

Matt Lira, special assistant to the president for innovation policy, on keeping up in 5G, tech's response to COVID-19 and America vs. China.

Matt Lira

Matt Lira says he still wouldn't bet against America's leadership in 5G.

Photo: The White House

Matt Lira might only have a couple of months left in his job.

As special assistant to the president for innovation policy and initiatives in the White House's Office of American Innovation, November's election will help decide how he spends the next four years. But during a panel discussion hosted by Protocol on Wednesday about enabling the technology of the future, he argued that the work he does between now and the end of the year would be the same regardless of who is elected.

"There are things that, from a public policy perspective, can only be achieved in the first year of a term," he said during a conversation with Protocol's Issie Lapowsky and Emily Birnbuam, as well as Alexiaa Jordan, an analyst at The Lincoln Network. "And so my personal objective, and I think a lot of people on the team, is how do we position the country to really make meaningful progress in 2021 by laying the foundation for that today."

There's a lot of tech policy issues to think about right now, after all — from how COVID-19 has changed the path of American innovation to what the nation can do to find more of an edge in the development of 5G. During the panel discussion, Lira shared his thoughts on these topics and more.

The following questions and answers have been edited for clarity and brevity.

Obviously so much has changed in terms of the economic reality that we're living through right now, and I imagine that must have somewhat reoriented the priorities of your office. Can you talk to me a little bit about how these last six months have changed the direction of the Office of American Innovation? Are there new areas you're focused on now?

Dealing with the national pandemic and the response to it moved a lot of things around on the priority list, but frankly many of the underlying issues and concerns are things that have been either worked on in the last several years or things that were well underway. The biggest change really wasn't a shift in terms of direction as much it was accelerating the need for progress.

Then the second aspect … from the vantage point of my office and the team that I work with has been the unbelievable outpouring of offers for support, ways to help from every stakeholder really in our country. And particularly in the technology community, it's been remarkable and frankly somewhat moving to see stakeholders who don't always agree on every issue of the day kind of raise their hand and say "how can I help" or "here's how I think I can help." We've seen that from the C-suite all the way down to entry-level professionals throughout the tech sector and throughout our economy. So that's been really remarkable.

Can you give us some examples of what sorts of projects you're saying have been accelerated?

Clearly a great example there is around telehealth, where this is something that we were laying the foundation for. But given the national emergency, the initial response was to issue waivers and permit emergency use authorization of telehealth technology by HHS and other federal stakeholders. And of course we've seen remarkable uptick in the use of that technology. And then recently, in the last several weeks, we've taken steps to make some of those changes permanent.

It's an example where I think both, from the perspective of policy but also from the adoption rates across the country, we're several years ahead of where we likely would have been in calmer waters. You see that in other sectors as well, but telehealth is a particularly good example.

We can't have a conversation about the future of the economy without talking about the role of China and Chinese companies in that economy. And right now TikTok is acting as a proxy for U.S.-China relations. It's emerged as one of the few true competitors to social networks like Facebook and YouTube, but it's also facing this potential ban if it doesn't sell in the next few weeks. Why should the U.S. government be in a position of controlling what people have on their phones? And isn't that similar to what China does in terms of controlling technology within its borders?

First of all, [I'll} just disclaim, I probably shouldn't comment on the specific case referenced just because it's an ongoing matter involving various processes, but the broader view of that issue is point well taken. I think that first and foremost, we need to make sure that the digital ecosystem in our country is secure and that it protects the ground rules that generally we agreed on as the tech sector. I think it's important that we come up with ultimately free market solutions to those problems. But we do need to make sure that we take them seriously as well.

I guess my last bit on that is, no one would have thought in the 1970s that America would lose the lead in manufacturing that we possessed at that time. And yet, 20 years later, we were where we were. I think when it relates to the digital economy, we need to be very mindful of that ecosystem that has created the companies like Facebook, Google and the other American companies you referenced. And then any entrant into that field, whether it be American or global, agrees to our ground rules.

I want to talk a little bit about 5G and what it's going to take to get to a place where it is available in mainstream in the U.S. Most 5G hardware providers beyond Qualcomm and Apple are foreign, so where is investment going, and what needs to happen over the next 10 years, to make America competitive in 5G with American products?

It's one of the core industries of the future. So first and foremost, we know the investment in the R&D in that sector — we've made substantial public investments through the National Labs, and the National Science Foundation, etc. — needs to continue. And if anything, it needs to continue to grow.

Second, spectrum allocation matters a lot. And the important midband spectrum availability. The Department of Defense, recently working with the FCC, and, of course, the White House, was able to come to an agreement on freeing up some of that spectrum and being able to redeploy it for 5G purposes. So the combination of the midband spectrum and the C-band spectrum auctions hopefully this year, I think will have a very significant effect on the availability of 5G in the United States.

And third, in sort of something that I always come back to, part of what will make this ecosystem successful in terms of competitiveness is not taking for granted the innovation ecosystem that we have in this country, and the ability for startups to be created that leverage that technology in a way that provides value for end users, whether they be enterprise customers or consumer customers.

We have an incredible track record as a country in doing all three of those things exceptionally well in the innovations sectors.

As we continue to confront what I would call the policy challenges of the last wave of technological innovation, particularly here in Washington, we have to make sure that the choices that we make don't prohibit America to lead the next wave of policy innovation. What I like to say is the obligation of public policy in this area is to make sure that the next Steve Jobs, when she creates [a technology] in her dorm room or a garage or a coffee shop, is somewhere in the United States. We shouldn't take that for granted. And if we do that right, then I wouldn't bet against America's leadership in 5G.

You either have a couple months left in your job or four more years. So what do you hope to accomplish in these next few months as we head to the election?

There are things that, from a public policy perspective, can only be achieved in the first year of a term. And so next year will be the first year of a term, whether it's the second term or a first term. And so my personal objective, and I think a lot of people on the team, is how do we position the country to really make meaningful progress in 2021 by laying the foundation for that today.

I like to say that we're sort of in the fifth year of a 10-year journey as a country building an institutional capability for change management with how we leverage technology, federal, state and local. That involves how do we actually do that? It involves who actually does it and it involves, how do you pay for it? And we've made progress on all three of those points. But I think there's still more work to do.

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