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Federal takeover of 5G wireless network raises significant concerns

A worker climbs a cellular communications tower
A worker climbs a cellular communications tower in Oakland, Calif. Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

A Trump administration proposal to nationalize a portion of the nation’s wireless network in order to combat threats from China in 5G raises many technical, logistical and political concerns, including a fierce debate over the proper role of government in business.

The bottom line: The proposal calls for aggressive government involvement in the private wireless market, representing a significant shift in U.S. industrial policy that would hugely disrupt the business plans of America's largest telecom and technology companies.

As first reported by Axios, a proposal circulated by Trump's National Security Council proposes building a national 5G network in a chunk of airwaves, known as mid-band spectrum.

While the security of the wireless network and competition with China are both real threats, experts doubt the feasibility of this approach and question whether it would actually lead to a faster, more secure path to 5G connectivity.

Here are some of the issues which experts say are raised by the proposal.

1. Disrupting private investment

All the major carriers have been investing heavily to roll out their own 5G networks, with many already moving into trials around the country.

  • “People have either invested already in roadmaps or are very close to significant investments,” said wireless industry expert Chetan Sharma. “Nationalizing a band without significant input will obviously create a lot of turmoil in the industry.”
  • Ensuring a competitive market when the network is shared could be a challenge, Sharma said. It's unclear if smaller carriers and potential new competitors would have access.

2. Industry uproar

An appendix to the memo anticipates that the harshest reaction to its proposals would come from the satellite industry, which uses the mid-band spectrum that the NSC suggests using for 5G, and from cable giants Comcast and Charter. But the memo suggests other players could be allies:

  • T-Mobile is seen as a possible strong supporter of the proposals because it "lacks rich spectrum for nationwide 5G and would welcome more level playing field" with AT&T and Verizon.
  • CenturyLink is seen as potentially supportive because it could use a nationwide 5G network to "monetize its fiber-rich network."
  • Google is similarly seen as a potential ally because more internet access means more people online to consume the ads Google serves.
  • AT&T, Verizon and Sprint are all expected to have "mixed" reactions.

3. Impossibly short time-frame

The three-year timeline laid out by the proposal is not feasible, according to a wireless industry source. Even with private sector resources and competitive incentive to move a quickly as possible, it will take the nationwide carriers close to a decade to build out full 5G networks.

  • Plus, any wireless network depends on robust fiber networks in the ground, which would need to be expanded and refurbished for a full-scale 5G network.
  • "The notion that the government can singularly build this network in three years is nuts," the source said.

4. Massive political blowback

A federal takeover of privately funded and operated infrastructure would draw fire from both sides of the aisle.

  • State and local governments will bristle at the idea of the feds taking away their ability to decide where network equipment can be placed on their streets and buildings.
  • The memo indicates eminent domain could be invoked to justify clearing airwaves needed to build the network, which would meet strong opposition from government and commercial users of those airwaves.
  • The Federal Communications Commission, which oversees the commercial use of spectrum and is involved in 5G deployment efforts, is an independent agency and would not be compelled to comply with an executive order of this nature. This could set the stage for an inter-governmental standoff.

5. Security could still be a challenge

One goal put forth by the proposal is to create a highly secure network to ward off growing security threats from China and others. The problem is that 5G connectivity will rely not just on one single-band network, but a conglomeration of multiple different types of networks.

  • In the end, the network is only as secure as all the connection points on it.
  • Even if a narrow slice is secure, the networks feeding into it wouldn't necessarily be secure and could therefore compromise the rest of the network.

6. The market for network gear is already highly concentrated

Another argument laid out in the documents is the notion that such a centralized network could create more competition in the network equipment space. But most cellular network gear is already made by a small number of companies.

  • On the radio side, there are really only three big players — and none are American.
  • Huawei (China) has been the fastest growing, with Ericsson (Sweden) and Nokia (Finland) following.
  • Although Huawei’s growing dominance is a concern, the U.S. already prevents the major carriers from using Huawei’s gear in its networks so it’s not clear how much a centralized network would change this balance of power.

7. AI is a big concern, but unrelated

The document talks about China’s advanced role the development of artificial intelligence.

  • That’s a serious issue, especially since U.S. companies are locked out of China (and the data to be gleaned there), while Chinese companies can take part in the U.S. market.
  • But, that has little to do with 5G wireless networks, since AI processing is done at the server level.
  • “Clearly they are two different things,” Sharma said. “AI benefits from 5G but it doesn’t require it, and there China is racing ahead.”
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