Trump White House mulls nationalizing 5G... an idea going down like 'a balloon made out of a Ford Pinto'
Make America Socialist Again?
The pros and cons
Those arguments, combined with a desire by the Trump administration to come up with forward-thinking mass infrastructure projects, is likely what has led to the proposal getting this far. It is notable, however, that the proposal leaked soon after it was presented to senior officials at other government agencies.
The logic behind the proposal is solid: the United States is a vast country and the cost of introducing a nationwide 5G network is enormous. Each mobile operator is effectively creating its own parallel network, which is highly inefficient, and it is far from certain that those networks will be able to interoperate.
As such, a federally created nationwide fast 5G network would likely end up much cheaper, with less redundancy, and, theoretically, much higher security as it can be administered centrally. It could also be built faster than relying on competing companies to introduce their own networks. And it would be able to cover remote and rural areas in a way that profit-seeking companies are unlikely to do. It could also bypass the multitude of different local and state laws that cover the installation of mobile equipment.
In addition, it would probably work out cheaper for businesses and citizens to use since the federal government would be in a position to charge only what it costs to maintain the network.
Those are the plus sides. The downsides are not insignificant.
A federally built and owned network would almost certainly end up being a tool of mass surveillance. The creation of such a network would almost certainly kill off the industry's plans to build their own 5G networks since they would not be able to compete, and that would give the government effective control of its citizens' communications: something that doesn't sit at all well with government-fearing Americans.
There is also a big difference between building a highway system and a modern telecommunications network. Concrete and asphalt are relatively easy to maintain and pretty predictable. There is very unlikely to be some undiscovered property in these materials that would enable a third party to cause the highways to fall apart.
And while much of a 5G network will be physical in nature – the installation of hundreds of thousands of access points – the nature of this next-generation network is that it requires constant, careful management and that is done remotely and electronically.
Who would you trust to run a secure network that remains focused on its users' needs: public mobile companies or the federal government?
It's also worth noting that this is not exactly the first time that the issues surrounding 5G rollout have been discussed and considered: it has been the focus of significant attention and effort for nearly a decade.
As just one example, former NTIA head Strickling gave a speech about 5G rollout more than two years ago in which he talked in some depth about the balance between competition, interoperability and getting networks built.
"Continued growth and innovation in the wireless sector will hinge in large part on the successful introduction of 5G networks and our ability to deliver the spectrum needed to power this and other next-generation technologies," he identified, before going into the complexity of moving to a shared-spectrum approach.
It's also worth noting that for something as significant as a full nationwide network, there are a lot of people that need to be brought on board, without whom a project is doomed to fail.
Strickling noted in his speech: "Working collaboratively with the White House, FCC, federal agencies and industry… We have been assisted greatly in this effort by our interagency Policy and Plans Steering Group (the PPSG), the Commerce Spectrum Management Advisory Committee (CSMAC), and the President's Council of Advisors on Science and Technology, or PCAST."
Meanwhile, today's inhabitants of the White House continue to insist to themselves that everything is much simpler than it appears, and that difficult national problems can be solved by one hard-working guy in an office with his laptop.
Nationalizing 5G networks is not a terrible idea. In fact, it would have some real advantages. But it's not going to happen because magic wands don't exist. ®