Dec 10, 2021 - Technology
Column / Signal Boost

Exclusive: Retired general nabs $20 million for secure 5G tower plan


Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

Back in 2018, White House National Security Council official Gen. Robert Spalding wrote a controversial PowerPoint deck on how the U.S. government could play a greater role in building 5G networks. Now Spalding has left government and military service and landed $20 million to bring some of his vision to life via a private company.

How it works: The startup, Sempre, aims to offer a more secure, smarter alternative to the traditional cell tower, adding computing power at the edge and making the cell tower itself more resilient to attacks.

Details: Spalding tells Axios most of the $20 million in funding comes from the private offices of wealthy individuals. The round was led by Goff Capital, the family office of John Goff, a Texas real estate investor.

Between the lines: It's early days for the company, which is still looking for "anchor tenants" for a network of such towers.

  • Sempre is still figuring out how best to work with the existing players, including tower companies and wireless carriers, as well as where it can work directly with military, government agencies and businesses to offer private 5G networks.
  • The company has also won a bid for an early trial with the military and is exploring other ideas for working with first responders and other governmental agencies.

The big picture: Spalding says Sempre aims to offer its customers added computing power by placing a mini-data center at the tower, as well as protection from electromagnetic pulses caused by nuclear attack or solar flare.

  • Commercial carriers are also working to place data centers closer to the edge of their networks.
  • This "edge computing" approach can minimize delay and speed app performance.

Growing competition with China and an increase in cyberattacks are among the motivations for building a more secure network. "Data really defines who we are in the digital economy today," Spalding says.

Yes, but: 5G networks are rolling out fast in the U.S., and it's unclear what kind of broad demand there might ever be for Sempre's "hardened tower" approach.

Flashback: In 2018 — as Axios first reported — Spalding's PowerPoint presentation was circulating through the White House listing a series of ways that the government could foster creation of a more secure 5G network by playing a bigger role in its creation.

  • The idea was widely criticized by those who saw the commercial industry already well on the way to establishing their own 5G networks.

Spalding insists he was never trying to nationalize 5G. Rather, he saw an opportunity for the government to play a broader role in securing next-generation networks, or perhaps by spurring the major wireless players to work together.

  • "Nobody told me to do it," Spalding said. "I did it on my own."

Spalding left the White House shortly after the 5G presentation became public and went back to the Pentagon, where he began the process of retiring from the Air Force. While other retiring officers were making plans for golf or fishing, Spalding said he was making plans to launch a tech company.

  • "This is my passion," Spalding recalls telling his wife. "It’s not something that people are really working on."

What they're saying: Rhydon Lee at Goff Capital, which led the financing round, says Sempre fits with his focus on sectors of the economy that will see increased investment due to competition with China, areas like space, national security, climate tech and quantum computing.

  • "There is now an incentive for innovation in some of these areas," Lee told Axios. Lee said he was attracted both to Sempre's product ideas as well as to Spalding himself.
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