Opponents Rally Against Trump's Possible 'Socialist' 5G Network

Mike Dano
3/29/2019

Based on the levels of noise from opponents, there appears to be a growing push inside the Trump White House for some kind of government-funded, nationwide 5G network.

Although the idea of a nationalized, wholesale 5G network has surfaced several times during President Trump's first two years in office, recent developments on the front appear to indicate that the proposal remains in play, and may even be gaining steam. As Politico reported in a lengthy article, Rivada Networks -- which is surrounded by high-powered conservative political actors -- stands as one of the most visible entities tied to such a concept. However, Rivada's specific corporate pitch centers on dynamic access to spectrum, similar to the market for electricity.

Nonetheless, the notion of any kind of increased government involvement in the 5G network market is polarizing in the GOP, considering much of the recent "race to 5G" rhetoric centers on the threats created by China's own state-funded 5G buildout effort.

On one side of the 5G issue here in the US stand those who argue it is in the nation's best interest to speed up the deployment of 5G through more active government participation, including potentially freeing spectrum from the Department of Defense and wholesaling it through a third party like Rivada. As noted by Politico, Washington DC heavyweights ranging from GOP strategist Karl Rove to tech investor Peter Thiel to Trump campaign manager Brad Parscale to Kevin Werbach, who advised former President Barack Obama on telecommunications policy, are either directly aligned with Rivada or at least supportive of a wholesale network of some kind.

(It's also worth noting that Rove, at least, is no stranger to the intricate relationship between the federal government and telecommunications companies. For example, Rove worked to aid Philip Falcone's LightSquared before Falcone exited the picture and LightSquared became Ligado Networks -- which itself continues to work to obtain government sign-off for its plans to build a 5G IoT network with its spectrum holdings.)

But opposition to the idea of a nationalized or wholesale 5G network stretches from current FCC Chairman Ajit Pai to Sen. Marco Rubio to Steven Bucci, a former Army Special Forces officer and top Pentagon official who is now a visiting research fellow at the influential conservative think-tank Heritage Foundation.

"A government effort to achieve a nationwide 5G network in 2-3 years is a fantasy, and a dangerous one at that," Bucci wrote on Fox Business, a division of the Fox News Network favored by Trump.

Ross Marchand of the Taxpayers Protection Alliance took the debate a step further by pulling a rhetorical trump card (pun intended) with an essay published in This American Conservative titled "Just Say No to Trump's Socialist 5G Plan." Trump, of course, has rallied against the notion of socialist politicians and appears to be basing much of his 2020 re-election campaign on the idea that he would be a capitalist alternative to the Democrat Party's socialism.


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Nonetheless, the debate around a nationalized 5G network appears to be serious enough that a group of Republican Senators introduced legislation that would specifically bar the government from building its own wholesale 5G network. "We thank Senators Cruz and Cortez Masto for reintroducing the E-FRONTIER Act and affirming that commercial providers are best placed to deliver, manage and secure 5G wireless networks," wrote the wireless industry trade group CTIA in support of the legislation. "Instead of trying to 'out-China, China', as some proponents of a nationalized 'wholesale' network monopoly suggest, this important piece of bipartisan legislation confirms that competition in a free and open market is the best path for maintaining America's global wireless leadership."

CTIA represents the likes of AT&T and Verizon, which surely would view any wholesale 5G network proposal as competition to their own 5G efforts.

Perhaps motivating the opponents of a nationalized 5G network is the Trump administration's promise to take some kind of as-yet unspecified action on 5G. In February, the administration promised to develop policies around both AI and 5G as a way to ensure the US commands leadership on those technological frontiers.

Already, the Trump administration has taken action on AI. Michael Kotsakas -- who was recently appointed as the nation's top tech official -- wrote last month in Wired that "President Trump is taking action to ensure that AI continues to be fueled by American ingenuity, reflects American values, and is applied for the benefit of the American people by signing an Executive Order to launch the American AI Initiative. This initiative will focus federal government resources to develop AI. Our approach will increase our prosperity, enhance our national and economic security, and improve quality of life for the American people."

Presumably a similar Trump initiative on 5G is pending, but so far the administration has taken no concrete actions beyond calling on government agencies including the NTIA to find and release additional spectrum for commercial operations including 5G.

What's noteworthy in all these current proposals for a more aggressive approach to 5G, aided by government actions, is that it's not necessarily new, nor is it exclusive to 5G. For example, M2Z from John Muleta also sought spectrum from the government for free wireless broadband, while Morgan O'Brien's Cyren Call was to manage public safety's wireless network.

Finally, it's also worth pointing out that the current push around a wholesale or nationalized 5G network is partly in response to growing concerns that China and Chinese vendors like Huawei and ZTE pose a threat to US leadership in 5G technology, US companies' profitability and US national security in general. In response, Huawei has strongly argued against such conclusions, and this week the company's chairman appeared to take language from Trump's own playbook by arguing that the US government has "a loser's attitude" and is working to "smear" Huawei because "it cannot compete against Huawei," as Reuters reported.

Mike Dano, Editorial Director, 5G & Mobile Strategies, Light Reading | @mikeddano

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Mike Dano
Mike Dano
3/29/2019 | 4:03:33 PM
Update
I updated this article to more clearly explain what Rivada's proposal is.