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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.

Go deeper

Jan 4, 2022 - Podcasts

The latest on the Jan. 6 investigations

It's been almost a year since supporters of former President Trump stormed the U.S. Capitol and tried to overturn the results of the presidential election.

Since then, federal prosecutors have charged more than 700 people in connection with the deadly insurrection. We catch you up quick on where things stand now with both the congressional and federal investigations.

  • Plus, wireless providers vs. the FAA over 5G.
  • And, Florida’s record-breaking COVID case count.

Guests: Axios' Andrew Solender, Selene San Felice and Margaret Harding McGill.

Credits: Axios Today is produced in partnership with Pushkin Industries. The team includes Niala Boodhoo, Sara Kehaulani Goo, Julia Redpath, Alexandra Botti, Nuria Marquez Martinez, Lydia McMullen-Laird, Sabeena Singhani and Alex Sugiura. Music is composed by Evan Viola. You can reach us at podcasts@axios.com. You can text questions, comments and story ideas to Niala as a text or voice memo to 202-918-4893.

Go deeper:

9 mins ago - World

Pentagon: 8,500 troops on high alert for possible deployment to eastern Europe

Photo: Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images

Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin has placed 8,500 U.S. troops on "heightened preparedness to deploy" to eastern Europe in case NATO activates its rapid-response force over tensions with Russia, the Pentagon announced Monday.

Why it matters: No decisions have been made to actually deploy U.S. forces, but the heightened alert level will allow the military to rapidly shore up NATO's eastern flank in the event that Russia invades Ukraine.

Updated 40 mins ago - Economy & Business

S&P 500 on track for worst-ever start to year

Data: FactSet; Chart: Axios Visuals

Stocks suffered their steepest drop of the year early Monday, putting the S&P 500 on course for its worst-ever start to a year.

Driving the news: The benchmark S&P 500 dropped for its fifth straight day, with losses nearing 3% in early trading, momentarily putting it on track to fall into a "correction." Some of the steepest losses were recovered in early afternoon trading.