A narrower, albeit equally controversial plan to place more of America’s 5G future in the hands of the government is making the rounds. The plan, which is being pushed by President Donald Trump’s re-election campaign and some of his advisors, calls for the government to take wireless spectrum from the Defense Department and use a third-party operator to make 5G services available on a wholesale basis to wireless providers, according to Politico.
With 20 months to go before the next presidential election, the public-private proposal is wrapped up in political maneuvering intended to win favor with rural voters who often lack access to affordable broadband. Trump’s campaign manager for the 2020 election, Brad Parscale, backed a nationalized 5G network in response to tweets Trump wrote on 5G late last month.
“America must harness the power of capital markets and private sector to fund and build a state of art wholesale 5G network that is a model for the world,” Parscale wrote. “The government has underutilized spectrum it should share for the purpose. Americans (rural) deserve access to affordable wireless.”
The Trump administration backed away from a similar proposal that was leaked in 2018, after it received quick and unifying backlash from the wireless industry, lawmakers from both political parties, and the entirety of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC).
Nationalized 5G Is a ‘Non-starter’
FCC Commissioner Brendan Carr is equally disturbed by the revived proposal. “Turning heel on our successful, free market approach through China-like nationalization is a non-starter,” he wrote in response to questions from SDxCentral. “The U.S. won the race to 4G by getting government out of the way – not by increasing government control. We freed up spectrum for commercial use and modernized our infrastructure rules. For 5G, we’re doubling down on that approach, and our plan to secure U.S. leadership in 5G is working.”
Anshel Sag, analyst at Moor Insights and Strategy, said the proposal was a slippery slope toward government control over the internet and could limit competition.
“This is a gross example of government overreach,” Sag wrote in response to questions. “The expectation is that most things will be connected to 5G networks in the future and if the government controls the 5G networks, then it controls the internet.”
A nationalized wholesale 5G network would harm the competitive landscape by limiting investment from operators as spectrum becomes more commoditized, according to Sag. “5G as a technology, if implemented correctly, would help the United States become more competitive,” he said, adding, “There’s a role that government should play in 5G, but it should be in partnership with the operators and standards bodies, not as the owner of the networks.”
The proposal, as it stands now, is conflating multiple issues and trends that should be addressed on an individual basis and it fails to acknowledge how unlikely an entirely new company could build and deploy a nationwide 5G network that accomplishes these many goals in a couple years, said Frank Gillett, vice president and principal analyst at Forrester Research.
“I certainly think they could have been more effective at putting an idea out there,” Gillett said. “If the goal is to better serve underserved areas, including rural areas, then design a conversation that talks about that and what the options are. That’s a worthy goal, but to presume there’s already an obvious answer there and rush everyone into it, that doesn’t serve anybody.”
Carriers across the country have proven their ability and commitment to provide access to next-generation technologies, especially in rural areas, according to Steven Berry, president and CEO of the Competitive Carriers Association, which advocates for rural and regional carriers. “The idea of a nationalized 5G network would be incongruent with past practice,” he wrote via email.
Dan Hays, principal at PwC’s Strategy& division, is less shocked by the proposal. “While government intervention in the traditionally commercially-oriented mobile industry may seem a bit scary, a coordinated approach could result in more efficient use of scare spectrum resources, a reduction in overall capital costs, and fewer unsightly cell sites scattered across the country,” he wrote via email. “It rarely makes sense to build the same infrastructure three or four times over, but a healthy dose of competition and the elimination of unnecessary barriers will ensure that the goal is achieved as quickly as possible.”
Verizon and AT&T declined to comment. T-Mobile US and Sprint did not respond to a request to comment before deadline. Wireless industry trade association CTIA referenced a blog post it issued following Trump’s tweets on 5G last month.