White House national security officials recently floated a plan in which the government would pay to build a next-generation 5G network and rent access to wireless carriers, according to a report over the weekend.
A memo and presentation prepared by a top National Security Council official — and obtained by Axios — contrasts a nationalized 5G network with a network built by the private sector.
The documents suggest that allowing carriers to continue building toward 5G networks would take longer and cost more — an untenable option given China’s “dominant position in the manufacture and operation of network infrastructure” and its potential threats to national security.
The presentation favorably compared a nationalized effort to build super-fast mobile networks to the interstate highway building boom of the Eisenhower administration, and suggested a “new paradigm” for the wireless sector was needed by the end of President Trump’s first term.
But nationalizing the construction of new wireless infrastructure — formerly handled by competing companies in the tech and telecom industries — would represent an unprecedented shift from the private sector to the government.
The proposal promptly drew opposition from both the wireless industry and other administration officials.
“The wireless industry agrees that winning the race to 5G is a national priority,” CTIA President and CEO Meredith Attwell Baker said in a statement. “The government should pursue the free market policies that enabled the U.S. wireless industry to win the race to 4G.”
Federal Communications Commission Chairman Ajit Pai said in a statement that the private sector is best positioned to promote innovation and that he opposes any federal proposal to “build and operate a nationwide 5G network.”
“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,” Pai said.
An official told Axios that in addition to a government-owned network, the administration could also consider forming a consortium of top wireless companies to collaborate on building out next-generation systems.
Several major carriers, however, are already investing heavily in 5G and it’s unclear whether the effort would actually speed up network deployment — although the memo suggested that a national build-out could override local government restrictions on installation of new 5G infrastructure.
An updated NSC memo is reportedly less adamant about whether the government should build and own the 5G network, but officials maintained that some form of national effort is necessary to combat potential espionage as well as China’s ambitions in self-driving cars, virtual reality, artificial intelligence and other emerging technologies that will rely on 5G.
Security officials also said technology is a major component of China’s efforts to expand its influence to developing nations.
“We have to have a secure network that doesn’t allow bad actors to get in,” a senior administration official told Reuters. “We also have to ensure the Chinese don’t take over the market and put every non-5G network out of business.”