Despite the proposal’s claim of national security concerns, experts—including the administration’s picks on the FCC—came out aggressively against the idea.
The release of a purported National Security Council presentation pushing the national security benefits of a government-built 5G network led to outrage and general bewilderment from internet, infrastructure and communications specialists, including members of the Federal Communications Commission.
“The main lesson to draw from the wireless sector’s development over the past three decades—including American leadership in 4G—is that the market, not government, is best positioned to drive innovation and investment,” FCC Chairman Ajit Pai said in a Jan. 29 statement opposing the idea, just hours after the presentation was posted on Axios. “Any federal effort to construct a nationalized 5G network would be a costly and counterproductive distraction from the policies we need to help the United States win the 5G future.”
Fellow commissioner Michael O’Rielly took an even more defiant stance: “I’ve seen lead balloons tried in D.C. before, but this is like a balloon made out of a Ford Pinto. If accurate, the Axios story suggests options that may be under consideration by the administration that are nonsensical and do not recognize the current marketplace.”
“Consumers in the U.S. have benefited from the deployment of world-leading 4G networks precisely because we got the government out of the way,” said Commissioner Brendan Carr. “Any suggestion that the federal government should build and operate a nationwide 5G network is a non-starter.”
The telecom industry agrees with the commissioners.
Meredith Attwell Baker, president and CEO of CTIA, the wireless communications industry trade association, issued a tempered but unequivocal statement.
“The wireless industry agrees that winning the race to 5G is a national priority,” she said. “The government should pursue the free market policies that enabled the U.S. wireless industry to win the race to 4G.”
An AT&T spokesperson declined to comment specifically on the presentation, but added, “Thanks to multibillion-dollar investments made by American companies, the work to launch 5G service in the United States is already well down the road.”
Jonathan Spalter, president and CEO of USTelecom, was less ambiguous about the proposal.
“There is nothing that would slam the brakes more quickly on our hard-won momentum to be the leader in the global race for 5G network deployment more quickly than the federal government stepping in to build those networks,” he said in a statement to Nextgov. “The best way to future-proof the nation’s communications networks is to continue to encourage and incentivize America’s broadband companies—working hand-in-glove with the rest of the internet ecosystem, and in partnership with government, to continue to do what we do best: invest, innovate and lead.”
So why propose this?
The 30-page slideshow presentation, reportedly prepared by an official on the NSC, couches the need for government involvement in building the 5G network in national security terms.
After framing some of the technical problems with the internet, the document asserts: “Without a concerted effort to reframe and reimagine the information space, America will continue on the same trajectory—chasing cyber adversaries in an information environment where security is a scarcity.”
This view doesn’t really match reality, according to Roger Entner, founder of Recon Analytics, a telecom industry advisory firm.
“Unless we say goodbye to the internet and hello to ‘USAnet,’ it’s going to be that way,” he told Nextgov. “The moment you connect your network to other people outside this country, you’re opening yourself up to attack—it’s the nature of the beast.”
Furthermore, the government doesn’t have the same track record as industry when it comes to cybersecurity.
“I’m not aware of a wireless carrier in this country being hacked. I’m aware of the government being hacked left and right,” Entner said. “I’m not aware of any reason why a government-built 5G network would be in essence any more secure than what a commercial provider in this country provides.”
The only national security claim, in Entner’s assessment, would be to aid in government surveillance over this network. Though, he noted, the carriers have been “extremely accommodating” to the government’s requests.
Overall, “This is flawed on almost every level,” he said. “Whoever wrote this … I don’t think the person has full grasp of the matter—of how this all works and how it all fits together. It’s a complex topic.”