In their Axios story “Trump team considers nationalizing 5G network,” Jonathan Swan, David McCabe, Ina Fried, and Kim Hart report that “Trump national security officials are considering an unprecedented federal takeover of a portion of the nation’s mobile network to guard against China, according to sensitive documents obtained by Axios.”
I had three reactions to the leaked Trump NSC materials.
- Surely these are not actual policy documents they are using to make decisions.
- The author is using China as a model to design a U.S. policy.
- If the President says 5G or build a nationwide wireless network in his State of the Union address Tuesday night, his staff are setting him up for an embarrassing policy failure.
The leaked documents are of such low quality that they barely merit a response, but the policy ramifications would be so enormous and harmful I feel obliged to raise my concerns, framed as twenty questions for the author of these documents.
I encourage you to review the slide deck and memo and form your own judgment.
Public vs. Private
- You compare a government-built 5G wireless communications to both the creation of the National Highway System in the 1950s, and the Space Race in the 1960s. The government did those projects in part because no one else could. Why shouldn’t private firms build 5G? They seem willing and able to do so.
- Pointing to both the U.S. Interstate Highway System and the Chinese “Belt and Road” system as models, your primary option proposes a network model for 5G wireless: a single, universal, government-run, centrally-administered network. Why does this model make more sense for American 5G wireless than the multiple overlapping 3G and 4G private wireless networks, or the privately-owned wired U.S. internet infrastructure, or the private hub-and-spoke air carrier network, or the regional networks of State and local roads that connect to the interstate highway system? Why should the government (you) choose an optimal network structure rather than allow it to grow and evolve based on consumer-driven pricing signals?
- You say a government-built and -operated wireless network will “create millions of jobs.” Won’t it just shift jobs from the private sector to the government?
Financing, innovation, and improvement over time
- You say your “new paradigm … would require a single network that is virtually shared by retail providers.” Who will pay for building this network? Since the benefits of any private investments to build or upgrade part of such a network would be shared by retail providers, how does your proposal “rely on private capital?” Why would private firms invest to build or upgrade capacity? Are you proposing to turn telecom firms into regulated utilities and guarantee them a certain return?
- Or do you assume the government would use scarce fiscal resources to build and upgrade the network over time? If so, what makes you think the taxpayer funds would be available, or that they would not be allocated based on political power in Congress?
- Sometimes different private firms adopt different competing technologies (e.g., GSM vs. CDMA, VHS vs. Beta). Competition drives these firms to improve their technologies. In your plan, the government would choose a single technology and mandate its nationwide use. What makes you think the government (you) knows enough to pick the best technology?
- Other than government fiats, why would anyone have an incentive to improve upon that initially chosen technology?
- IT modernization at the IRS is a multi-decade disaster. The U.S. government was unable to build a health insurance enrollment website. FedEx, UPS, and Amazon run circles around the U.S. Postal Service. What makes you think a government-run wireless network will “enable innovation” or result in “more resilient and effective operations” compared to one built and operated by private firms?
Speed of deployment
- You state the U.S. government will build a nationwide wireless network in three years. That fits with the end of the president’s first term, but is there anything more specific than “Inspired Leadership” which leads you to think this particular timeline could be achieved?
- What makes you think equipment manufacturers could “move manufacturing facilities to the U.S. … in time to allow for a three year deployment timeline?”
- More generally, what examples suggest the U.S. government could build a nationwide wireless network faster than could the private sector?
- You point out that local siting rules slow down the deployment of new telecom infrastructure, and recommend the federal government override these local rules. This policy choice is independent of who builds the infrastructure, right? If made, such policy changes would also expedite private sector deployment, yes?
Security & privacy
- Why do you think a single network would be more secure than multiple networks? Would it be more robust to a debilitating attack?
- As someone who received an Office of Personnel Management notice that my federal government employee records were hacked by Chinese proxies, why should I trust the U.S. government’s ability to secure private wireless communications?
- Your proposal would mean that every phone call I make, every email and text I send and receive, every photo I post, search I cast, app I run, and website I browse would be going through government-operated information systems, right? And my geolocation data as well? Do you consider this a feature or a bug?
- You propose the Department of Education “take the lead in developing training programs that ensure an adequate supply of skilled labor.” What existing government-run job training programs lead you to believe this can succeed?
- You say private firms can be forced to “begin harnessing the secure network as soon as it is available” through imposing “corporate governance standards … for large and publically [sic] traded private entities.” Why should the government tell private firms what technology they must use and when?
- You say the government will create “an air layer utilizing airline carriers and other public/private Unmanned Aerial Systems.” Does this mean the government will be flying planes and drones around to provide 5G coverage? Why is this a good idea?
- The proposal seems to be inspired by and modeled after a Chinese government, top-down, centralized control approach. Is it? If so, why does it make sense to model U.S. policy after Chinese policy? If not, how is it different from what China does?
- Who signed off on this? The Axios story says this document was produced and distributed widely by “a senior National Security Council official.” Do White House staff routinely circulate documents of this poor quality to senior decision-makers? Do policy decisions get made in the Trump Administration based on documents like this?