Leaked Trump Plan To 'Nationalize' Nation's 5G Networks A Bizarre, Unrealistic Pipe Dream

from the intern's-brain-fart dept

There's been a lot of hand wringing and hyperventilation over a new report claiming that the Trump administration wants to nationalize the nation's looming fifth-generation (5G) wireless networks, despite the fact the proposal has a snowball's chance in hell of ever actually materializing. According to a leaked PowerPoint deck and memo drafted by a "Senior National Security Council official," the Trump administration wants the U.S. government to build and own a centralized, government-controlled 5G network in order to, purportedly, fight Chinese hackers.

More specifically, the memo claims this plan would be akin to the "21st century equivalent of the Eisenhower National Highway System," creating a "new paradigm" for the wireless industry and for national security. Fear of Chinese hackers drives the proposal from stem to stern, suggesting the plan needs to be completed in three years to protect American interests worldwide:

"The PowerPoint presentation says that the U.S. has to build superfast 5G wireless technology quickly because “China has achieved a dominant position in the manufacture and operation of network infrastructure,” and “China is the dominant malicious actor in the Information Domain.” To illustrate the current state of U.S. wireless networks, the PowerPoint uses a picture of a medieval walled city, compared to a future represented by a photo of lower Manhattan.

The best way to do this, the memo argues, is for the government to build a network itself. It would then rent access to carriers like AT&T, Verizon and T-Mobile."

And while the Trump administration running our nationwide wireless infrastructure seems both equal parts fascinating and terrifying, it's hard to take the proposal seriously.

For one thing, it ignores the technical realities of the telecom sector and the path to 5G. Individual carriers like AT&T, Verizon and T-Mobile already have their own 5G network builds well underway and spectrum already largely assigned, with commercial launches of the faster, lower-latency standard expected beginning in 2020 or so. Suddenly injecting the United States government into this process at this point makes little to no actual sense, at least for an administration that has stated repeatedly that telecom Utopia is achieved by government letting these entrenched carriers do whatever they'd like.

The proposal also tends to ignore political realities. AT&T and Verizon have more state and federal political influence than nearly any other companies thanks to their already extensive ties to domestic surveillance operations. They don't want their assets seized to help operate such a "nationalized" network, and any effort to do so would prove politically suicidal. That's why Trump's own FCC (you know, the agency that actually regulates publicly-owned airwaves) was quick to release a statement shooting down the proposal:

"I oppose any proposal for the federal government to build and operate a nationwide 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. 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. 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."

US Telecom, a lobbying organization backed by AT&T, was just as quick to shoot down the proposal:

"There is nothing that would slam the breaks more quickly on our hard-won momentum to be the leader in the global race for 5G network deployment more quickly than the federal government stepping-in to build those networks. The best way to future-proof the nation’s communications networks is to continue to encourage and incentivize America’s broadband companies -- working hand-in-glove with the rest of the internet ecosystem, and in partnership with government, to continue do what we do best: invest, innovate, and lead."

When I first read the proposal, my instinct was that it was just the random brain fart of some natsec advisor who doesn't understand how telecom works or the mammoth influence companies like AT&T have over such policy. And that seems to be supported by subsequent leaks in the wake of the memo's release:

"As multiple White House officials confirmed to Recode on Sunday, the document as published is dated. They also stressed it had merely been floated by a staff member, not a reflection of some imminent, major policy announcement — and probably might never be."

To be clear, none of this is to say nationalizing networks couldn't work or be beneficial in an ideal world that actually respected civil liberties. Data has suggested a nationwide, taxpayer-funded fiber network where ISPs come in and compete (aka "open access") would potentially provide America with cheaper, better service than the pricey dreck currently passing as American broadband. Of course, given incumbent ISP influence that proposal will never actually materialize either, since to do it correctly would mean increasing competition in the broken telecom market, and we certainly wouldn't want that.

That said, the proposal does engage in all the usual hand-wringing about how the existing $700 billion defense budget isn't enough to counter the "Chinese threat" to American industry. So while the proposal isn't likely to result in nationalized networks, any runner up proposal is likely to just double down of all of our worst habits to date, including throwing countless billions at companies like AT&T, bone-grafting them to our global intelligence apparatus, then ignoring all the ways this power has been routinely and consistently abused.


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  1. icon
    Jessica Gross (profile), 20 Mar 2018 @ 3:55am

    I think its a big step in the telecommunication sector.

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