Memo to President Trump: Let’s Leave Wireless Networks to the Experts  

Building a wireless network sounds deceptively straightforward. Acquire some spectrum licenses, put up some towers, deploy some cell sites, buy some of these end-to-end 5G platforms touted by firms like Nokia and Ericsson, and flip a switch.

And now comes a report from Axios, citing a leaked Powerpoint presentation and memo, indicating that the U.S. government wants to build a nationwide 5G network in just three years as a way to combat what it fears is China’s growing leadership in networking and potential security issues. (At deadline, Recode.net was reporting that the White House denies the information in the Axios report).

But building a wireless network from the ground up isn’t an easy feat. Just take a look at the past and you will find it is filled with struggling ventures that thought otherwise.

FirstNet’s Experience

For example, take a look at FirstNet, the First Responder Network Authority created by Congress in 2012 to establish a nationwide broadband network for public safety. FirstNet initially suffered from a limited staff and then foundered due to possible conflicts of interest among some of its leadership. It took two years for FirstNet to issue a Request for Proposal (RFP). AT&T (finally) won the RFP in March 2017. But the network still isn’t expected to be finished for three more years. In other words, it will take more than eight years for FirstNet to move from concept to reality.

But FirstNet isn’t alone. Pivot, the much-hailed $200 million joint venture between Sprint and cable companies Comcast, Time Warner Cable, Cox Communications, and Brighthouse Networks, underestimated the difficulty of building a viable wireless service.

Pivot had big aspirations to offer consumers a combination of wireless, fixed wireline, video, and Internet services in 33 markets across the country. But the service was plagued with problems, and the venture was dissolved a couple of years later.

At the same time, nationwide carriers are moving quickly to deploy 5G, and the U.S. will likely be one of the first countries to have commercial 5G services in limited markets by year-end. AT&T has said it will have mobile 5G deployed in a dozen markets by year-end. Likewise, Verizon has said it will have fixed 5G in three to five markets by year-end.

Clearly, if this proposal moves forward the Trump administration will face some of the same hurdles that plagued FirstNet and Pivot.

And it’s worth noting that not a single member of the FCC seems to think this plan a good idea. FCC Chairman Ajit Pai (a Republican appointed by President Trump) called the proposal “a costly and counterproductive distraction.” And FCC Commissioner Mignon Clyburn (a Democrat) said that “a network built by the federal government, I fear, does not leverage the best approach needed for our nation to win the 5G race.”

Why not learn from history and leave the wireless networks to the experts.