The White House plan for a federal 5G program is a necessary check on Chinese tech ambitions.
According to an Axios report released Tuesday, the White House is once again pushing the Pentagon to “jumpstart a national 5G network,” to compete with Chinese telecommunications giants Huawei and ZTE. This is not the first time this has been proposed by the Administration as well as the Trump campaign, with Trump campaign advisors Brad Parscale and Newt Gingrich pushing one proposal in March 2019.
As the Founder of The Wallace Institute for Arctic Security, I have met personally with many of our allies in the Arctic region, as well as allied international organizations, to educate them on the dangers of Chinese-backed 5G programs. In every meeting, I get asked the same, pointed question: “If not China, then who?”
The proposed American solution, which could be operated by a private company on behalf of the U.S. government, would use airwaves currently owned by the Department of Defense to operate. This has some large, private telecommunications companies concerned that the federal government would play favorites and create a 5G monopoly.
The push to federalize 5G comes after years of bellyaching by Republicans and Democrats both about the rise of Chinese 5G (Huawei and ZTE, namely) across the globe, and concerted lobbying efforts by the telecommunications companies to be allowed to operate in the United States.
Despite the growing concerns, however, the market is taking its sweet time in saving the United States and its allies from growing Chinese global influence.
American telecommunications giants have been reticent and slow to operate 5G nationally due to budgetary constraints and lack of research and development into the crucial backend equipment, such as radio access networks (RANs), that are pivotal to the operation of regional and national networks. Most major companies like Verizon acknowledge that users likely won’t be able to range too far from hot spots, or else they’ll lose their 5G signal.
The only two competitors to the Chinese telecommunications giants are Ericsson and Nokia, two European-owned companies.
And yet Big Tech remains entirely opposed to a government-run 5G program, with Axios citing unnamed sources saying they “[view] it as the government hand-picking a single winner in the deployment of nationwide 5G,” but also that they “believe they could change tacks and vie for the contract if the Department of Defense moves ahead with the plan.”
So what gives? Where is the 5G network the libertarians promised us the market would provide?
It’s not coming, and it’s time for the federal government to step in and get it done.
There is precedent to this, nearly a century ago—the creation of RCA. In the clearing smoke of WWI, RCA was created by naval officers with the hopes of reshoring American radio communications from Western Europe. RCA would go on to pioneer FM radio stations, as well as launch the first national radio network: NBC.
Western Europe posed much less of a threat to Woodrow Wilson’s United States in 1919 than China poses to Donald Trump’s America in 2020. Following President Trump’s lead, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is forcing the diplomatic hands of our NATO allies on the 5G question, notably in the United Kingdom, Slovenia, Italy, and even the small, Danish territory of the Faroe Islands.
Though far more advanced than American 5G, both Ericsson and Nokia provide lower-level service offerings than Huawei or ZTE, often at an increased cost. Many of our allies feel gypped by the State Department’s insistence that they purchase lower-quality services for a higher cost just to please career bureaucrats in Washington, D.C.
It is unacceptable that, while the United States demands its allies toe the line on Chinese 5G, our ruling elites’ allegiance to free-market fundamentalism and all the campaign cash it provides prevents them from offering an American alternative. Waiting for the “market to provide” will be too little, too late for many of our allies.
The United States government must step up, in the interest of national security, and provide a national 5G framework that is capable of being duplicated and exported to our allies.
Nick Solheim is the Founder of The Wallace Institute for Arctic Security and the Director of Business Development at Nativ3. You can argue with him (or send camping recommendations) at @NickSSolheim