Late Sunday, a proposal surfaced from Trump administration national security officials suggesting the partial nationalization of America’s mobile communications network. The documents, obtained and first published by Axios, suggest that the federal government build portions of the nation’s 5G wireless network over the next three years, ultimately renting access to wireless carriers. According to the proposal, China’s “dominant position” in 5G infrastructure represents a threat to US security, which the plan would help address.
Axios sources have said since that the proposal is an “old draft” and that discussions since then have taken a more neutral stance on the idea of a federal wireless network. Nonetheless, the plan was met with widespread criticism as details emerged. The move would be unprecedented in the US, where private wireless providers have built their own infrastructure with their own equipment, leasing airwaves from the federal government.
According to Recon Analytics wireless analyst Roger Entner, “It’s somewhere between naive and uneducated. 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.”
Robert McDowell, a former Republican FCC commissioner, said “Every single Republican thinks it’s a supremely bad idea to have a taxpayer-owned and -run 5G network.”
“I oppose any proposal for the federal government to build and operate a nationwide 5G network. 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.”
The plan lays bare the emerging division in the Republican Party between those who want a strong hand on security and trade issues with China, and a more traditional wing that focuses on free trade and private enterprise.
The idea does address some apparently legitimate concerns. Security officials have long harbored fears of espionage from China targeting US networks. At the forefront of these concerns is a Chinese telecom company, Huawei, which supplies network equipment. In 2012, the House Intelligence Committee cautioned that this “threat to the supply chain constitutes a rising national security concern of the highest priority.”
The concern is that devices can be programmed to clandestinely collect and relay industrial and national security-related intelligence.
The document also compares the plan to the Eisenhower National Highway System, a collective national project undertaken to benefit all. And indeed, at first glance, the idea might seem to have some merits. Plenty of other nations have nationalized telecom infrastructure. Such a plan might even address problems with the uncontested power large telecom companies currently wield. Perhaps, as pointed out by the Verge, it would help to connect underserved rural areas which large companies have had little incentive to reach. These are all possible merits for a nationalized network.
But the Trump administration’s plan is not likely to accomplish any of these goals, as it is not motivated by any of those ideas. Instead, the document refers to an “AI arms race” with China, even though the plan would make little difference in any disparities in progress with AI technology. AI processing happens at a server level, and has little to do with wireless networks.
While cybersecurity concerns are very real, there is no evidence that Huawei’s hardware specifically presents a security risk. The cold war language betrays the fact that the proposal would have been at home at the height of tensions with the Soviet Union, a time in which fear of an arms race accomplished little besides further escalation. It’s unclear whether such a plan would increase either the security or the speed of wireless networks in the US.
If the motivations are faulty, the execution is even more problematic. Telecom companies have already invested heavily into the next generation wireless network. Besides the industry uproar, it’s not clear that the market would stay competitive, according to industry expert Chetan Sharma. Smaller companies and potential new competitors might have a hard time gaining access.
Politically, the outlook is even messier. State and local governments would lose the ability to decide where to place network equipment on streets and buildings. The FCC, which has unanimously opposed the idea, is an independent agency and is not obligated to cooperate with such a move. This could mean a stalemate within the government, which could lead to a host of other problems and delays.
All of these pitfalls would themselves exacerbate security issues and our nation’s ability to compete. And a nationalized network could fail to improve security in any case – 5G would depend on more than a single network, relying instead on many networks working together. Even if a portion is nationalized and truly secure, the whole network is only as secure as all of its connections. If one is faulty, it could easily compromise the rest of the network. For all of the trouble it would cause, the plan is no guarantee of security itself.
Since the document emerged, the Trump administration has denied plans to build a national wireless network. It’s impossible to say whether this was already the case or whether the administration is trying to distance itself from an idea that turned out to be wildly unpopular. If this is the case, the administration is wise to listen to critics, who have immediately and unanimously pointed out massive problems with such a plan.