Editor's Note: Updated January 30, 2018, at 8:44 a.m. with statement from the National Security Council.
WASHINGTON, January 29, 2018 – The Trump administration has made no decisions regarding a National Security Council proposal to nationalize the forthcoming fifth-generation, or 5G wireless broadband network meant to prevent the network from being exploited for espionage purposes by China.
“Right now, we’re in the very earliest stages of the conversation,” White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said during a Monday press briefing. “There have been absolutely no decisions on made on that would look like, what role anyone would play in it…. That is the only part of this conversation we’re up for right now.”
Still, the proposal prompted a stark rejection from all five members of the Federal Communications Commission.
When pressed further on whether “a secure network” would entail constructing one single nationwide network, Sanders demurred, noting only that “there are a lot of things [on] the table.”
“[T]hese are the very earliest stages of the discussion, period,” she said. “There’s been absolutely no decision made other than the need for a secure network.”
Details of a National Security Council proposal
The NSC proposal, which was first reported by Axios, lays out two possible plans. One plan would have the U.S. government construct a single nationwide 5G network, which would be the first time the U.S. government would be directly involved in building out telecommunications infrastructure.
The nationwide telephone network was built by the former AT&T telephone company, which under the “Kingsbury Commitment,” was granted a monopoly over a nationwide phone network in exchange for the promise at it would be built to reach all households in the U.S.
The government did have a role in creating what would become the modern-day internet, but despite the government’s involvement in that network, it was built by a number of private corporations.
The second plan is what would normally happen on this type of project, and would have private companies -- including AT&T (a very different company from the former telephone monopoly), Sprint, T-Mobile and Verizon – build out competing networks.
A source familiar with the proposal explained to Axios that the second option really isn’t an option, as a centralized, nationwide network is necessary to truly protect the U.S. against China and other so-called “bad actors.”
Federal control of communications under the Trump administration?
The first option would lead to federal control of the nation’s communications infrastructure, but the NSC memo compares a federal network with the nationwide Interstate Highway System, built under Republican President Dwight Eisenhower.
According to the memo, the government would build the network with security in mind, and lease access to companies like AT&T and Verizon. Those companies would then resell service to consumers.
A united Federal Communications Commission blasts the plan
But in a surprising show of bipartisan agreement, all five members of the Federal Communications Commission – three Republicans and two Democrats – rejected the proposal in strongly worded statements released Monday.
“I oppose any proposal for the federal government to build and operate a nationwide 5G network,” said agency Chairman Ajit Paisaid in a statement.
“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.”
Pai suggested that government should make spectrum available for next-generation technologies and set rules that encourage the private sector to develop and deploy those technologies.
“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,” he said.
“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 Republican Commissioner Brendan Carr. Any suggestion that the federal government should build and operate a nationwide 5G network is a non-starter.”
In an even more acidic statement, Republican Commissioner Mike O’Reilly observed, “I’ve seen lead balloons tried in D.C. before but this is like a balloon made out of a Ford Pinto.”
The FCC's two Democrats also disagreed with the proposal
The two Democrats on the commission were equally emphatic in their rejection of the proposal.
Democratic Commissioner Mignon Clyburn noted that United States leadership in 5G is “critical and must be done right” by enabling localities and technical experts to determine the course of the 5G buildout, with cybersecurity as a “core consideration.”
A network built by the federal government, I fear, does not leverage the best approach needed for our nation to win the 5G race,” Clyburn said.
Her party colleague, Jessica Rosenworcel, was more circumspect, and noted on her Twitter account that the Trump proposal “diagnoses a real problem,” namely that other nations may be better situated to win the 5G race.
“But the remedy proposed here really misses the mark,” she said.
Neither the White House nor the National Security Council had responded to questions as to whether anyone at the FCC had been consulted in any way during the proposal’s development.
Updated: When asked whether the NSC or anyone within the Trump administration consulted with either the FCC, which allocates spectrum, or the National Telecommunications and Information Administration – the agency in charge of the spectrum allocated to the U.S. government, a National Security Council spokesperson replied with a statement echoing Sanders’ position from earlier in the day:
“The President’s National Security Strategy made it clear that secure 5G internet capability nationwide is critical,” he said. “While in very early stages of the deliberative process, all options are under consideration and we are firmly committed to working with the American telecom and technical sectors to support a solution.”
(Photo of Donald Trump speaking in August 2016 by Gage Skidmore used with permission.)