Watch: Is the Trump Administration Going To Nationalize 5G?
Why This Matters: 5G will drive the next generation of IoT technology, and this decision (although considered extremely unlikely) could have vast implications on its progress.
Could America’s 5G network be nationalized by the federal government in the next three years, becoming a “21st century equivalent of the Eisenhower National Highway System”?
It’s a dramatic possibility being raised by Trump national security officials, according to a story published over the weekend by Axios. But two Republicans on the Federal Communications Commission, including the chairman, immediately sought to squash the idea in statements Monday morning.
Axios is a news site founded in 2016 by three former top executives at Politico. Its story said internal administration documents argue that to protect against China, America needs a centralized nationwide 5G network, and that they outline an option under which the government would pay for and build a single network — essentially a federal takeover of part of the U.S. mobile communications system.
The material was produced by a “senior National Security Council official,” according to Axios, and presented recently to leaders at other agencies. According to Axios, one internal presentation states that China “is the dominant malicious actor in the Information Domain,” and that the best way to respond would be for the government to build a network and rent access to carriers.
Axios notes that this would be “a marked shift from the current system where those companies each build their own systems with their own equipment, and with airwaves leased from the federal government.”
Whether this internal discussion is anywhere near becoming administration policy is unclear. Such internal long-term discussions are common in Washington. One source told Axios that the draft in question is an “old” one and a newer version is neutral about whether the government should build and own it. The documents also outline other possible plans, including a market consortium approach that still would involve more cooperation among competitors than is currently the case. The carrier industry is a powerful one on the Hill. And Axios notes that U.S. deployment of 5G infrastructure is already well underway in the private marketplace. AT&T told the news outlet that 5G launch in the country is “already well down the road.”
But it’s a subject with vast implications, raising the possibility of a federal process for installing wireless equipment, regulating wireless sales and in the longer term influencing development of artificial intelligence, virtual reality, autonomous cars and the Internet of Things.
Ajit Pai, chairman of the FCC named to that position by President Trump, immediately reacted: “I oppose any proposal for the federal government to build and operate a nationwide 5G network,” he said in a statement.
“The main lesson to draw from the wireless sector’s development over the past three decades—including American leadership in 4G—is that the market, not government, is best positioned to drive innovation and investment,” Pai continued. “What government can and should do is to push spectrum into the commercial marketplace and set rules that encourage the private sector to develop and deploy next-generation infrastructure. Any federal effort to construct a nationalized 5G network would be a costly and counterproductive distraction from the policies we need to help the United States win the 5G future.”
Fellow Republican Commissioner Michael O’Rielly was more colorful: “I’ve seen lead balloons before tried in D.C. but this is like a balloon made out of a Ford Pinto.”
The wireless industry agrees.
“The wireless industry agrees that winning the race to 5G is a national priority,” said CTIA President Meredith Attwell Baker, but she signaled industry should be the one driving that train: “The government should pursue the free market policies that enabled the U.S. wireless industry to win the race to 4G.”
The president is expected to talk about infrastructure needs in his State of the Union speech Jan. 30.
John Eggerton contributed to this story.