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Specter of nationalized 5G continues to haunt US wireless industry

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The U.S. wireless industry counts at least three things that will not die: zombies, vampires and the notion of a nationalized 5G network.

Early on in the Trump administration, a leaked memo suggested the government was considering speeding the deployment of 5G technology by building and running a centralized nationwide network. Industry leaders, lawmakers and regulators voiced strong opposition to the idea, and it disappeared for a while.

Now, with the November election rapidly approaching, the notion has been resurrected. President Donald Trump's second-term agenda, according to his reelection campaign, includes winning the global race to 5G and establishing "a National High-Speed Wireless Internet Network." Moreover, the U.S. Defense Department published a request for information, or RFI, asking about "potential issues with DoD owning and operating independent networks for its 5G operations" using the department's mid-band spectrum in the 3.1-3.55 GHz band.

Once again, the wireless industry has panned the idea and lawmakers have voiced concerns. Given all this, policy experts said a nationalized 5G network is unlikely in the foreseeable future. However, they also warn that the idea cannot be ignored — especially if Trump wins a second term.

The whys and why nots

When the idea of a nationalized 5G network was first floated by the Trump administration, the arguments included that the federal government would be better able to secure such a network. Moreover, the memo asserted that a nationalized network could be built faster than separate competing private networks.

But many industry and policy experts alike say these arguments are false.

Meredith Attwell Baker — head of the U.S. wireless association, CTIA, a trade group that represents companies including AT&T Inc., Verizon Communications Inc. and T-Mobile US Inc. — noted in a blog post that over the past four years, the U.S. wireless industry has invested more than $100 billion to deliver nationwide 5G service. More than 250 million Americans live in areas where 5G service has already been deployed.

"A nationalized DoD network would start years behind the competitive private sector with no credible way to catch up," she said.

On the security front, 19 Republican senators led by Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., wrote to Trump arguing that a nationalized network actually threatens national security.

"When bad actors only need to penetrate one network, they have a greater likelihood of disrupting the United States' communications services," the senators said.

Jeffrey Westling, a resident fellow at the libertarian think tank R Street whose research focuses on telecommunications and online content policy, agrees, noting that multiple studies show competition encourages firms to improve cybersecurity.

"By creating a single, nationalized network relying on the patents of a single firm, the federal government risks creating a monoculture. A monoculture ... presents an increased risk of a severe attack because there is a single vendor that malicious actors can target," Westling wrote in response to the Defense Department's RFI.

What Defense says

Russell Goemaere, a Defense Department spokesperson, said the department "has no plans to own and operate a nationwide 5G network." Instead, he said the RFI shows that the Defense Department is "exploring the idea of owning and operating a 5G network on military bases."

But Paul Rosenzweig, a resident senior fellow at R Street focused on national security and cybersecurity, does not buy it.

"The DoD RFI is kind of a stalking horse for nationalized network," he said.

While he acknowledges some distance between what the department is asking and a full nationalized network, he believes that distance would be easily traversed if the Defense Department starts going farther down this path.

"It's the cattle's nose under the flap of the tent. It would start as a nationalized network only for military purposes. Then it would be expanded to the defense industrial base. Then to critical infrastructure. You can see the moves coming," he said.

Who wants nationalized 5G

If the Defense Department says it does not plan to own and operate a nationalized network, and if industry leaders and lawmakers on both sides of the political aisle oppose the idea, one has to ask who exactly does support such a plan.

Jim Dunstan, general counsel of free-market-focused tech policy group TechFreedom, said that is his primary question. "Who is really floating this lead balloon? That's what we've been trying to figure out since this idea first surfaced," he said.

One thought is that it is simply a campaign pledge led by Trump's reelection team and White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows.

"You've seen it on [Trump's] campaign websites and there have been tweets that on the list of to-dos for a second term is to build a nationalized 5G network," Doug Brake, director of broadband and spectrum policy at the nonpartisan public policy think tank Information Technology and Innovation Foundation, said in an interview.

Westling, though, noted that as a campaign pledge, nationalized 5G does not make sense because most voters are not too interested. "It's much more of a niche telecom policy issue," Westling said.

Brake said he is also unsure who the campaign is appealing to with this effort. "To my mind, it doesn't normally fit in with the traditional Republican market-oriented approach to telecommunications, but it's not the first time this administration has broken with Republican orthodoxy," he said.

Enter Rivada

Another name frequently cited as supporting this effort is Rivada Networks LLC, a communications technology business that is backed by several prominent Republican figures, including Karl Rove, Newt Gingrich and Peter Thiel. The company has patents on a wide array of spectrum open access technologies.

Rivada, though, says it does not support nationalizing 5G.

"Like vampires, some bad ideas just won't die. Also like vampires, some bad ideas exist only in the imaginations of those who believe in them," the company said in a news release.

But what Rivada does support is a wholesale wireless network built to commercial scale with the Defense Department's spectrum and private capital. The network would be shared with commercial users who are subject to preemption by the Defense Department.

No deal on wholesale

CTIA, however, argues that Rivada is looking for "a multibillion-dollar giveaway," and is hoping to act as gatekeeper to the Defense Department's valuable mid-band spectrum holdings. Mid-band spectrum is seen as important for 5G since the high band cannot travel long distances or penetrate certain surfaces, and low-band spectrum has become crowded due to 4G wireless services.

The trade group also noted that a robust wholesale wireless market already exists in the U.S., pointing to mobile offerings from Walmart Inc. and cable operators that rely at least in part on wholesale agreements with wireless carriers.

"A government mandated wholesale approach is far different and has repeatedly failed around the world," Attwell Baker said in her post.

Brake at ITIF said he believes Rivada is being honest when it says it does not want to nationalize 5G. "They want to play middle man and control access to DoD spectrum," he said.

But in either case, Brake says such a proposal is a bad idea because it would lead to ongoing uncertainty around the Defense Department's mid-band spectrum.

"This idea of a centralized network, or even just sharing the spectrum without giving anyone any certainty for when or how long it will be available, really just adds confusion and complexity to a process that is working pretty well," Brake said.

A way forward

If nationalized 5G is primarily a campaign pledge, Brake said it could die down again after the Nov. 3 election. Though he also cautioned that the idea has a hard time staying dead.

"It does kind of feel like the zombie idea, where every time you think the last nail was put in the coffin, it seems to somehow come back to life," he said.

But Brake said that for all the opposition around nationalized 5G, including his own, the Defense Department's RFI does bring up some good points.

"We do need to be asking hard questions about how best to share spectrum," he said. Westling agreed, saying that more than anything, the Defense Department's RFI highlights the looming battle over spectrum reallocation versus spectrum sharing. "There's just not enough frequencies to go around," he said.

And while spectrum sharing will solve some of that, Westling added, "Right now, sharing technology isn't quite where it needs to be for a lot of these proposed solutions. And it's just going to continue to be a challenge."