The planning-optional Trump administration has no plan to nationalise U.S. telecoms

30 January 2018 by Steve Blum
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The proposal to build a national, federally owned and operated 5G network grabbed a lot of attention early yesterday morning – it was a better wake-up jolt than a double espresso – but as the day went on it became clear that it was an out of the box analytical exercise by low level staff and not an actual plan. Axios broke the news on Sunday night, posting a slide deck and white paper prepared by national security staff that made the argument for clearing off 500 MHz of spectrum in the 4 GHz range and deploying a coast-to-coast, made-in-America 5G network that’s presumably more secure than off the shelf infrastructure made abroad.

The core argument was that China has the lead in 5G and artificial intelligence technology, and the U.S. needs to do something about it. Side benefits included quicker rural broadband upgrades – the paper assumed the network could be completed in three years – and an end to city by city bickering over permits and access to right of ways and poles.

Industry reaction largely amounted to huh? AT&T’s corporate statement urged gratitude for “multi-billion dollar investments made by American companies”, but forgot to mention the multi-billion dollar subsidies private telecoms companies are getting from federal and state governments. Weird.

The most robust defence of the telecoms industry came from the Federal Communications Commission. Four out of the five commissioners slammed the plan – Jessica Rosenworcel declined to rise to the bait.

But a nationalised wireless system can’t be ruled out in an administration that lurches from one random policy to another. The project was touted as an information age version of the Interstate highway system that was launched in the 1950s and largely completed within 25 years. It was pushed through on national defence grounds by president Dwight Eisenhower, who had been thinking about a unified federal highway network since 1919, when he spent two months in an Army convoy averaging 6 miles an hour, travelling from Washington, D.C. to San Francisco. Maybe president Donald Trump had a similar seminal experience: trying to tweet from the back nine at Mar-a-Lago perhaps?