It’s been a whirlwind day in the telecommunications world.
Last month, the Trump administration previewed plans to “improve America’s digital infrastructure by deploying a secure 5G Internet capability nationwide.” But details were scant. Does that mean a public-private partnership involving spectrum allocation and wireless carrier investment, or an unprecedented plan to nationionalize the nation’s 5G infrastructure?
The latter is the subject of a memo and PowerPoint presentation from the National Security Council (NSC), published on Sunday by Axios. The story cites a source familiar with the document’s drafting who acknowledges the proposal is an “old” draft; a newer version is neutral about whether the US government should build and own the 5G infrastructure itself.
Multiple White House officials confirmed to Recode today that the NSC documents are indeed dated, unofficial, and do not reflect a major policy announcement. Nationalizing a private industry is not current FCC policy, so it’s no surprise FCC Chairman Ajit Pai quickly condemned the report.
That may have been the end of it, until White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders commented on the administration’s 5G network plans in today’s press briefing.
Here is Huckabee Sanders’ full response on the matter:
“As we outlined in our National Security Strategy…we discussed the need for a secure network,” said Huckabee Sanders. “Right now we’re in the very earliest stages of the conversations. There have been absolutely no decisions on what that would look like, what role anyone would play in it, simply the need for a secure network. That is the only part of the conversation we are up to right now.”
She added: “There are a lot of things on the table. These are the very earliest stages of the discussion period, and there have been absolutely no decisions made other than the need for a secure network.”
That’s not exactly a denial that the administration may be considering nationalized 5G infrastructure. Axios states that the documents were produced by a senior NSC official who “presented [them] recently to senior officials at other agencies in the Trump administration.”
The documents do not appear to have any visible security classifications, but Reuters says a senior administration official confirmed their authenticity and added that the proposal is still six to eight months away from being presented to the President.
So here’s where we’re at: the question of a nationalized government 5G network is still very much an open one, but it’s clear that the Trump administration is developing potential proposals for nationwide 5G. The leaked NSC PowerPoint and memo obtained by Axios discuss deploying a nationwide 5G network in the “mid-band” (3.7-4.2GHz) spectrum by the end of President Trump’s current term. The proposal’s main arguments in favor of nationalization are to compete more effectively with China in network infrastructure, and to enable emerging technologies such as self-driving cars and virtual reality.
A Closer Look at the Proposal
There are a lot of levels to this. PCMag took a closer look at the leaked documents to break down many of the technical details, as well as the wide-ranging arguments and logic used to support the proposal.
It’s unclear whether the government would build the infrastructure itself or form a consortium with top telco companies including AT&T, T-Mobile, and Verizon, each of which is already heavily invested in building out 5G networks.
Entitled “Secure 5G,” the PowerPoint likens a nationwide 5G network to “The Eisenhower National Highway System for the Information Age.” The core argument posits that an American 5G network would serve as the counter to China’s “One Belt One Road Initiative,” giving the US a secure network to defend against Chinese economic and cybersecurity threats.
However, the 5G network would only be built over “mid-band airwaves,” as opposed to the low-band and high-band spectrum currently built out in 4G networks and supported by most network hardware. The proposal would allow wireless providers to compete with each other outside the government-run spectrum, with the federal network serving as the backbone.
Mark Hung, Research Vice President at Gartner, leads IoT and wireless communications research for the analyst firm. He told PCMag the most immediate challenge is simply a lack of available mid-band hardware, especially in an extremely unrealistic three-year timeframe.
“One of the key salient points of the memo is that they’re pushing to have the government build out a nationwide IT network built on the mid-band spectrum,” said Hung. “The first technical challenge is that there are no equipment vendors building 5G equipment for that spectrum; they’re building equipment for low- or high-band, but not the mid-band.”
The 5G plan may be motivated by trying to keep pace with China, but Hung said there are a few key differences between the US and China in this respect. China has two equipment providers capable of building this kind of hardware—Huawei and ZTE—whereas the US has limited options. The wireless networking gear market is highly consolidated as it is, and the US has already restricted US contractors from using Chinese hardware.
“The big difference is that China has two equipment providers in Huawei and ZTE, whereas the US has none on the radio side,” Hung pointed out. “Even if the government were to do this, you’d have to rely on other possibilities such as Ericsson, Nokia, or possibly Samsung. All are US allies, but we’re still not developing homegrown talent.”
Another major issue is that there has never been a consumer-facing US communications network owned by the government (there are military networks). The nationalization plan proposes superseding state and local governments to create a federal process for installing the wireless equipment needed to operate the 5G infrastructure, which would be a mass-scale federal encroachment into local law.
“There has never been a nationalized network. If you look at the documents, the rationale is to build the highest speed network possible with the widest swath of spectrum possible. So if you look at the mid-band, that’s 500MHz of bandwidth,” said Hung. “If we were to build a single national network using all 500MHz of the spectrum, you could build the fastest network with multi-gigabit speed.”
At the same time, Hung said this would require more base stations. All of the major carriers are looking into extremely high-band 5G networks, but Hung gave the example of the network Verizon is currently building out in Sacramento, California. It relies on a network of small cells, which present a lot of advantages once the network is up and running but necessitates even more equipment and presents large-scale building and permit challenges nationwide.
“If you have a single 500MHz spectrum, the advantage for carriers is much faster speeds and wider coverage more quickly where you can potentially reuse existing 4G cell towers,” said Hung. “But the major downside is that it’s never been done before. I don’t think any of the carriers would buy into a plan like this because they all want their own networks.”
There’s also the question of security, which the proposal states a 5G network would provide. While cellular networks are far more secure than the Wi-Fi networks of smart devices caught up in botnets and other attacks, Hung said the “security” referenced here is more about creating US 5G infrastructure as opposed to relying on Chinese equipment. That said, nationwide 5G would still rely upon multiple interconnected networks.
One aspect of the proposal that Hung said does hold up is 5G’s ability to enable more emerging tech. The jump from 3G to 4G was largely a speed upgrade. While Hung said the difference between 4G and 5G is about 10x speed, he also pointed to two other main technological pillars that form the foundation of 5G: massive scalability and decreased latency.
“5G can scales from hundreds of endpoints up to hundreds of thousands to support a lot of applications, and the reduced latency almost feels like you’re touching the end of the network. This reduced latency could enable all sorts of remote applications such as connected cars,” he said.
Finally, the proposal places a good deal of weight on the US need to compete with China in artificial intelligence as part of a larger “AI Arms Race.” Advanced AI development could certainly benefit from 5G networks, but the two are not closely related enough to use AI competition as a justification for building a nationalized 5G network in three years. The proposal’s logic tying AI to 5G is tenuous at best.
Tech Industry and Political Reactions
A government-run network would be a 180-degree policy reversal from the Trump administration’s current positions on deregulation, telecommunications, and granting more autonomy to private sector businesses. So it’s no surprise that a bevy of statements have come out criticizing potentially nationalized 5G infrastructure.
The Trump administration’s official 5G network plans should materialize in the coming months. Whether the proposal does indeed call for nationalized infrastructure or not, there are now plenty of opinions on the matter from both sides of the aisle. Here are some of the most notable comments:
FCC Chairman Ajit Pai
“I oppose any proposal for the federal government to build and operate a nationwide 5G network. 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 said in a statement. “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.”
FCC Commissioner Michael O’Rielly
“I’ve seen lead balloons tried in D.C. before but this is like a balloon made out of a Ford Pinto,” said O’Rielly, a Republican. “If accurate, the Axios story suggests options that may be under consideration by the Administration that are nonsensical and do not recognize the current marketplace. Instead, U.S. commercial wireless companies are the envy of the world and are already rushing ahead to lead in 5G. I plan to do everything in my power to provide the necessary resources, including allocating additional spectrum and preempting barriers to deployment, to allow this private sector success to continue.”
FCC Commissioner Mignon Clyburn
“The United States’ leadership in the deployment of 5G is critical and must be done right,” said Clyburn, a Democrat. “Localities have a central role to play; the technical expertise possessed by industry should be utilized; and cybersecurity must be a core consideration. A network built by the federal government, I fear, does not leverage the best approach needed for our nation to win the 5G race.”
Wireless industry trade association CTIA President and CEO Meredith Attwell Baker
“The wireless industry agrees that winning the race to 5G is a national priority. The government should pursue the free market policies that enabled the U.S. wireless industry to win the race to 4G.”
Internet Innovation Alliance
“Over the past 20 years, private sector network operators have invested hundreds of billions of dollars in building the wireless networks that have transformed how Americans work and live. As recent announcements from major network operators have shown, they are once again on the cusp of investing hundreds of billions of dollars more over the next decade to bring Americans the benefits of next-generation 5G networks, which will enable the Internet of Things and ever-faster communication. There is a global race to deploy 5G and to determine the standards by which that system will be deployed. As Commissioner Rosenworcel stated, in the current environment, ‘other nations are poised to win.’
“As we have long argued, for America to preserve its global leadership in telecommunications, this type of investment can only come from the private sector. Only the private sector, not government, can ensure the fastest and greatest possible deployments of new broadband technology in a way that will benefit all Americans. As Chairman Pai observed, ‘[t]he 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.’ We agree: to promote innovation and investment in the broadband future and to maintain American global leadership in telecommunications, the way forward is through encouraging the private sector, not government control of networks.”
Adam Brandon, President of Conservative and Libertarian advocacy group FreedomWorks
“We share the Trump administration’s belief that America must do more to lead and capitalize on the 5G revolution, but the best way government can help is by getting out of the way. The idea that the federal government, mired by waste and fraud in nearly all of its ventures from the Obamacare exchanges to the F-35 fighter, is better suited than competing private-sector telecoms to build a functional and affordable 5G network with anything resembling haste is laughable. Nationalizing any part of the 5G market would be a massive regression in what we agree is an area where America must catch and surpass the capabilities of China.
“In addition to concerns about inefficiency, the idea of granting government singular control of the 5G network should be setting off alarms for all Americans concerned with privacy. Considering the recent reauthorization of FISA’s Section 702, it’s clear that our nation’s national security establishment already has plenty of tools to breach the Fourth Amendment—we shouldn’t hand them this bazooka.
“The reason it is so important for America to lead the way versus China is because, unlike the communist government in Beijing, Americans cherish economic and personal freedoms. We’re not beating the Chinese if we sacrifice what makes our government so different from theirs.”
Va. Sen. Mark Warner, Senate Intelligence Committee Ranking Member
“While I’m glad that the Trump Administration recognizes that maintaining American leadership in the information age requires a significant investment commitment, I’m concerned that constructing a nationalized 5G network would be both expensive and duplicative, particularly at a time when the Administration is proposing to slash critical federal investments in R&D and broadband support for unserved areas. America’s leadership in emerging fields like AI depends on supporting our nation’s research universities – and having an immigration system that attracts the brightest minds in the world – rather than rehashing old debates on construction of a standalone federal broadband network. I agree there are serious concerns relating to the Chinese government’s influence into network equipment markets, and I would look forward to working with the Administration on a viable, cost-effective solution to begin addressing those risks.”