One of the 51 items on President Trump's re-election platform is to "win the race to 5G and establish a national high-speed wireless Internet network."
That goal is one of a handful of Trump's "innovate for the future" agenda items. It sits next to going to Mars, cleaning international oceans and domestic air and drinking water, and building the world's "greatest infrastructure system," whatever that means.
I contacted President Trump's re-election operation to find out exactly what the president intends to do when he says he wants to establish "a national high-speed wireless Internet network," but I haven't heard back yet. If history is any indication, I will not receive a reply.
So what's going on here?
One Wall Street analyst firm suggested that Trump's re-election plans involve building a "nationalized" 5G network – meaning, one owned and operated by the US government. "With the singular 'a' and the modifier 'national,' it is illogical to think the Trump plan is simply to take credit for the multiple private 5G networks currently being deployed," wrote the Wall Street analysts at New Street Research in a note to investors this week.
If that "national 5G" proposal sounds familiar, it is: Early in Trump's presidency, White House officials reportedly considered the construction of a national 5G network to help the US win the "race" against China to 5G.
And though Trump himself personally backed away from the idea of a "national" 5G network last year, some of his associates have continued to cheerlead for the proposal.
"Decisive action building a public-private partnership in the near term demands that we make shared spectrum available for a carrier-neutral, wholesale-only, nationwide 5G network to be built in the next two to three years across the entire country," wrote former House Speaker and Trump supporter Newt Gingrich at the beginning of 2019. Gingrich told Politico earlier this year that a nationalized 5G network has been "effectively resisted by the deep state."
Now, here's where things get tricky. As reported by Politico, Gingrich and other Trump associates – including Brad Parscale, Karl Rove and Peter Thiel – have called for the US military to release valuable midband spectrum for 5G. They have also been tied to the politically connected telecom firm Rivada Networks, which has touted technology for becoming a wholesaler of US government spectrum.
Importantly, Politico reported that Gingrich and Parscale have said they have no financial stake in Rivada. But Rove is a lobbyist for the company and Thiel backs it financially.
And here is where things get really interesting: The White House and the US military just a few weeks ago announced they would release 100MHz of midband spectrum for 5G by the end of the summer. They didn't provide any more details on that plan.
So, with all this in mind, is it possible that Trump's second-term plans involve giving that 100MHz of US military spectrum to Rivada so it can build a "national" wholesale 5G network?
"Of course we don't know for certain that the campaign was referring to Rivada's proposal. But it is similar to the language used before in White House discussions that, in order to win at 5G, there might need to be a single, national, government sponsored network," wrote the analysts at New Street Research.
Rivada officials vehemently rejected the basics of the notion.
"@RivadaNetworks does not support nationalization. Of anything. We sincerely hope researchers and journalists would at least check with us before peddling our opponents' untruths about our company," the company Tweeted.
"The whole idea that Rivada has ever asked for free spectrum or sought to nationalize anything is a lie cooked up by our enemies to slander us. There has never been an ounce of truth to it," wrote Rivada's Brian Carney Tuesday in response to questions from Light Reading.
Though Carney added: "Should the opportunity arise to compete to build a privately owned and operated wholesale, open access 5G network in the US, we would welcome the opportunity to bid."
Thanks, but no thanks
A number of telecom policymakers in Washington, DC – who asked to remain unnamed – offered polite but firm objections to the idea of a "national" 5G network. Some pointed out that Verizon, AT&T, T-Mobile and others are already pouring billions of dollars into 5G in the US, while others argued that a national 5G network would only make sense if it were available to small innovators, and even then would be a tricky proposal to pull off.
And some noted that there have already been a number of "national" network proposals, both successful and not. For example, Frontline, Cyren Call and M2Z have all watched similar proposals sink over the past few decades. But FirstNet – the US government agency charged with building a nationwide wireless network for police, firefighters and other public-safety workers – is close to finishing the construction of its 700MHz 4G network with partner AT&T.
Thus, in the absence of information, substance, detail and logic, one can only infer what Trump means, and what might happen next.
"Every time the prospect [of a national 5G network] has risen in the past, opposition quickly arises sufficient to end any momentum the idea may gather," wrote the analysts at New Street Research, adding that the need for a national network is receding as the nation's major wireless network operators further deploy their own 5G offerings.
And of Trump's reelection platform in general, the firm added that each of his 51 items "appear to have been hastily put together and it appears to us that there is not an actual plan behind each bullet, other than to serve as a short-term public relations ploy. In short, this is a case where we don't think the language should be taken literally or seriously."