Feb 7, 2020 - Technology

Team Trump's 5G misfires

Illustration of a hand holding a jumbled wifi connectivity icon

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

The Trump administration, eager to win the 5G race and outflank China's Huawei, has run one plan after another up the flagpole — but found it hard to keep any of them flying.

Driving the news: White House economic adviser Larry Kudlow aired a new approach Tuesday to speed the emergence of U.S.-led alternatives to Huawei. Attorney General William Barr dismissed the same idea Thursday as "pie in the sky."

The big picture: The incident is the latest in a series of hastily rolled-out administration ideas to spur 5G development and security, each hampered by confused messaging and widely criticized as impractical.

Why it matters: Policymakers argue that the U.S. could face serious economic and national security repercussions if it falls behind China in building 5G networks and technology.

What's happening: In a prepared speech, Barr, a former Verizon executive, said the U.S. must move quickly to make critical 5G-friendly airwaves available for commercial use, and must have a viable alternative supplier to Chinese telecom giant Huawei.

  • He poured cold water on recent reports of a new White House 5G effort to coordinate with U.S. companies to develop open software that could run on nearly any standard hardware.
  •  "The problem is that this is just pie in the sky," Barr said. "This approach is completely untested and would take many years to get off the ground, and would not be ready for prime time for a decade, if ever."
  • Instead of trying to build a whole new 5G architecture from scratch, Barr argued the U.S. should either use federal dollars or spur private investment to give a competitive edge to Nokia and/or Ericsson, Huawei's chief rivals in producing 5G equipment.

Flashback: Barr vs. Kudlow is act three in a drama that began two years ago.

  • Act one: In 2018 (as first reported by Axios) officials on Trump's National Security Council raised the idea of nationalizing 5G in an effort to outrace China. The concept drew heavy fire from both the Federal Communications Commission and the wireless industry, and was ultimately dropped.
  • Act two: Last year, the idea of building a wholesale national 5G network that all providers could share emerged from people in Trump's orbit, including Newt Gingrich and Brad Parscale. Trump's re-election campaign briefly threw its weight behind that idea, but withdrew after most of the administration rejected it.

5G policy has sparked other conflicts between the administration and other arms of government.

"It’s becoming clear as day that when it comes to planning for our 5G future, in this administration the right hand is not talking to the left. We have yet to coordinate our 5G strategy across the government."
Democratic FCC Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel

Even the administration's hard line on Huawei has been inconsistent.

  • President Trump has suggested the U.S. could ease its pressure campaign against the company as a concession to settle the trade war with China.
  • Huawei and U.S. partners have been able to sidestep some of the restrictions the Commerce Department placed on its ability to do business stateside.
  • The Department of Defense has also tangled with the Commerce Department over Huawei, blocking a move to bar U.S. companies from sourcing Huawei components over concerns it would harm American industry.

Where it stands:

  • The U.S. isn't faring badly in 5G deployment. All its carriers have started the process, and there's movement in making key mid-band spectrum available.
  • But sourcing 5G equipment remains a trouble spot. No one in the U.S. makes the gear. And Huawei's products are less expensive than those of its European rivals.

The bottom line: If 5G telecom networks around the world end up running on Huawei equipment, China wins big. And as the U.S pressures its allies to ban Huawei products, its muddled 5G messages aren't always working.

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