Well, that didn’t take long. Less than a day after news broke that Trump-administration National Security Council (NSC) officials had floated a plan for the federal government to build its own public 5G high-speed wireless network, the idea had been roundly shot down by the U.S. Federal Communications Commission, members of Congress, wireless industry pundits—and even the White House itself.
News Web site Axios on Sunday published an article, based on an undated NSC documents titled, “Secure 5G: The Eisenhower National Highway System for the Information Age.” The NSC documents explain the growing importance of high-speed wireless communications in developing artificial intelligence and other emerging technologies. The documents also position China as the current global leader in manufacturing the networking technology used to create 5G wireless networks, which are expected to have speeds up to 100 times faster than those today. The NSC, a group that advises the president on national security and foreign policy matters, then raised concerns about U.S. cyber defenses, proposing that the government build its own fully operational 5G network “by the end of the first term,” or 2020.
The White House played down the NSC documents Monday, calling the national 5G plan outdated and an idea from low-level personnel within the administration. FCC Chairman Ajit Pai, well-known for his efforts to loosen rather than tighten government control of the internet, likewise balked at the notion that the federal government would seek to build and operate its own 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 news release. “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.” Other FCC commissioners released statements echoing Pai’s sentiments.
The proposed NSC plan acknowledged AT&T, Sprint, T–Mobile and Verizon—the country’s biggest wireless companies—are already building their own 5G networks. But the NSC also lists a number of what it deems obstacles to each deployment. It says, for example, that T–Mobile and Verizon are “lacking spectrum for 5G macro coverage.” AT&T, meanwhile, has “no significant” spectrum in the millimeter-wave parts of the band that 5G requires, and is asking the FCC to accelerate auctions of those spectrum areas so the company can buy the bandwidth needed to potentially launch mobile 5G services later this year. AT&T and Verizon have tested fixed-wireless 5G services throughout the U.S. for the past couple of years, and each plans to add new test sites this year. Fixed-wireless is an alternative to networking that relies on copper or fiber-optic cables and is different from mobile wireless, the service that enables smartphones to function.
“It would be very expensive for the government to build its own 5G network, and the government would have to find enough spectrum, which is in short supply these days,” says Darrell West, vice president and director of governance studies at The Brookings Institution and founding director of Brookings’ Center for Technology Innovation. “The large mobile carriers have spent billions of dollars over the past few years to secure spectrum for their own networks, which they’ve been building out at great expense.” T–Mobile USA spent $8 billion in 2017 alone to buy spectrum for its 5G network, and the other major wireless companies have likewise made major investments over the years. “It’s hard to see there being much support for the government to spend the money needed to compete, especially at a time of rising government deficits,” West adds.
One of the NSC’s main stated reasons for creating a national 5G network would be to protect U.S. internet users from cyber attacks launched using devices and networking equipment made in China. The NSC documents noted, “China is the dominant malicious actor in the information domain.”
“One of the government’s justifications for potentially building its own 5G network would be to offer better security, but there’s no evidence that a government network is actually more secure than a private network,” West says. “Plenty of government networks have been hacked.”
And then there are the rather obvious privacy concerns. It is unclear whether a national 5G network would be governed by the same restrictions as those maintained by, say, AT&T or Verizon, which typically require a court order for law enforcement to access customer data. “A network owned and operated by the government would probably give federal agencies more leeway to access information flowing through it,” West says. “In addition, government agencies would know exactly where to go to find the information they’d be looking for.”
Ultimately, Congress would need to authorize the formation of a national 5G network due to the amount of taxpayer money involved, West says, adding, “None of the administrative agencies have that kind of budget authority.”