WASHINGTON--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 raised by a Trump national security official, according to a story published over the weekend by Axios. But all three Republicans on the Federal Communications Commission, including the chairman, immediately sought to squash the idea in statements Monday, and the White House subsequently downplayed the story.
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.”
Such internal long-term discussions are common in Washington. One source told Axios that the draft in question was 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.”
According to the website Recode, White House officials also emphasized that the document as published was dated. “They also stressed it had merely been floated by a staff member, not a reflection of some imminent, major policy announcement — and probably might never be.”
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.
Read more here: Scoop: Trump team considers nationalizing 5G network
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. 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 concurred.
“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.