Republicans, industry shun idea of nationalized 5G network
A Trump administration trial balloon on creating a nationalized 5G wireless network landed with a resounding thud in Washington on Monday as Republicans and Democrats as well as the country’s telecom giants rushed to condemn it as unworkable.
Reports emerged Sunday night that the administration is weighing a plan to have the government build and run the country’s next-generation 5G network, rather than leaving the job to wireless companies, due to fears of Chinese cyber espionage. Axios, which first reported the proposal, said it came from a National Security Council official who said the government could advance 5G just as it built a national highway system in the 1950s.
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But the concept ran into immediate opposition from Republicans alarmed about the talk of government elbowing aside business. President Donald Trump’s own FCC Chairman, Ajit Pai, who has spent his tenure rolling back regulation of the telecom industry, called the idea of a nationalized 5G network "a costly and counterproductive distraction.” Fellow FCC Republican Mike O’Rielly called it “nonsensical” while another GOP Commissioner Brendan Carr said the idea is a “nonstarter.”
GOP lawmakers were just as brutal, with Rep. Greg Walden (R-Ore.), chairman of the House Energy & Commerce Committee, saying, "We’re not Venezuela, we don’t need to have the government run everything as the only choice."
The public rift over the future of the U.S. wireless infrastructure marks another example of the roiling tensions in the Republican party, between those who want the private sector to operate without government interference and others focused on the national security and economic threats posed by China.
Amid the blowback, the White House on Monday sought to downplay the possibility of nationalization, with press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders saying discussions on the future of 5G are preliminary.
"There are a lot of things on the table," Sanders told reporters. "Again, these are the very earliest stages of the discussion period, and there’s been absolutely no decision made other than … the need for a secure network."
Another Trump administration official, who requested anonymity to discuss internal deliberations, said the document that became public is not the latest version of the proposal and that the idea has not yet gained traction with other parts of the administration.
But Brett Bruen, who served as director of global engagement for the Obama National Security Council, said the nationalization idea is "supported by certain circles within the military and in the Republican party that believe extreme measures need to be taken in order to defend the future.”
“It raises some very serious questions about whether the U.S. government should be in the business of building networks," said Bruen, president of Global Situation Room, an international relations consulting firm. "There are some legitimate security concerns, but this is not in the best interest of taxpayers.”
Democrats and the telecom industry appear just as troubled by the proposal. Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.) warned that building a nationalized 5G network would be both "expensive and duplicative." Democratic FCC Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel said a government-backed network “misses the mark.” And CTIA, the trade group for the major wireless carriers, said the feds should pursue the free market policies that helped the industry lead the way in 4G wireless service.
Companies like AT&T and Verizon are already working to deploy 5G in the U.S. The next-generation service is expected to deliver speeds up to 100 times faster than current networks, and will be central to self-driving cars, connected devices and other technologies that will rely on super-fast connections.
But unlike traditional wireless networks, which rely on large towers that carry signals over long distances, 5G service requires a dense network of smaller cellular infrastructure, because the airwaves don’t travel as far. The wireless industry expects to invest billions in the buildout, and has been pushing for policies to ease local rules on permitting and constructing in cities.
The document published by Axios envisions a three-year timeline for the national 5G network, and contemplates the government building the infrastructure and renting access to wireless carriers. Telecom experts expressed skepticism on the feasibility of the plan.
"It’s somewhere between naive and uneducated," Roger Entner, a wireless analyst with Recon Analytics, said of the proposal. "Who wrote this? From what planet are they from? The practical obstacles to this are mind blowing. The whole idea flies in the face of reality."
U.S. officials have long been concerned about the potential for Chinese spying on U.S. networks, particularly by Chinese telecom giant Huawei, a supplier of network equipment. Huawei’s “threat to the supply chain constitutes a rising national security concern of the highest priority,” the House Intelligence Committee warned in October 2012. The proposal floated by the NSC official envisions a U.S. government-operated wireless network as more difficult for foreign intelligence services to access.
But Republicans are adamant that a national network is not the right approach.
Former GOP FCC Commissioner Robert McDowell, now policy adviser to wireless group Mobile Future, predicted the concept will have a very short life.
“Every single Republican thinks it’s a supremely bad idea to have a taxpayer-owned and -run 5G network,” he said.
Angela Greiling Keane and Eric Geller contributed to this report.
January 29, 2018 at 02:34PM