Over the weekend, Axios reported on an unusual proposal from the National Security Council: the US government should build its own 5G network. Axios obtained an internal memo and Powerpoint Presentation created by a senior NSC official and distributed to officials in other federal agencies.
The news has caused a wave of reaction across agencies and the political spectrum, in part because 5G is such a hyped technology with a lot of hopes riding on it, and in part because nationalizing a traditionally private industry is a big, sweeping change. We looked into what it all means and whether it’s actually likely to happen.
What is a nationalized 5G network?
Simply put, a 5G—or fifth generation—network would use high-frequency airwaves to distribute wireless data. This would allow much faster speeds—up to 20Gbps—versus the current 4G maximum bandwidth of 1Gbps. 5G networks will be necessary for things like driverless cars and the expanded Internet of Things to function. But building a 5G network takes time and money because it requires an almost entirely new infrastructure of towers and equipment. Because 5G operates on a higher frequency, it’s more easily disrupted by things like weather, trees, and buildings. That means a functional 5G network would require cell bases every 100-200 meters.
Though private telecom companies are racing to be the first to build 5G networks in the US, the NSC proposal suggests that the federal government should take the reigns and just build the infrastructure itself. The government would then own the network, and it could lease the use of the network to private companies.
Why would the government want to do that?
The main arguments presented in the NSC proposal are that having government ownership of the network would allow the US to get its network built first, before other global powers, like China, have a chance to dominate the market. Chinese telecom giant Huawei is already making great strides towards a 5G network.
“China has the ability to just order the rollout and that network would be large enough to create economies of scale allowing Huawei to develop the necessary handsets and networking equipment, which they would sell to the rest of the world,” Harold Feld, senior vice president at DC-based digital rights group Public Knowledge, told me.
The Powerpoint presentation outlines this early in the document, stated that China “has achieved a dominant position in the manufacture and operation of network infrastructure,” and that the United States is “losing, but…we can make a fundamental change. Otherwise, China will win politically, economically, and militarily.”
There’s also a concern about cybersecurity and whether private companies will be able to create networks that can keep out hackers.
“It basically boils down to: ‘If we, the people in charge of national security, dictate the terms on which this network is built, we will damn well make sure it is secure,’” Feld said.
How are different groups reacting?
The thing about this proposal is a nationalized telecom infrastructure is not necessarily a GOOD or BAD idea, but the idea of the federal government—rather than private industry—owning such a large communications infrastructure project would be a significant change in how wireless networks operate today, and is surprising coming from a conservative administration that nominally champions the free market. Many prominent voices have criticized the idea, question whether it would allow the government the ability to more easily spy on citizens’ communications, censor how we use the network, or disrupt the free market.
“The market, not government, is best positioned to drive innovation and investment,” Federal Communications Chairman Ajit Pai said in an official statement. “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.”
Commissioner Mignon Clyburn, a democratic commissioner on the FCC, agreed with Pai.
So, is it actually going to happen?
Now that the proposal has been made public, everyone is getting a chance to weigh in. The fact that both Pai and Clyburn, as well as telecom lobbyists are all pretty against the idea, doesn’t bode well for its prospects. Recode has also reported that the files surfaced by Axios are dated, and aren’t really being considered at this point.