Following disclosure of a National Security Council proposal that the U.S. government build and operate America’s 5G wireless network, Federal Communications Commission Chairman Ajit Pai today issued a statement strongly opposing the idea, deeming it “costly and counterproductive.” The public clash of perspectives — one focused on security, the other on speed — suggests that U.S. agencies are beginning a major debate over the future of American telecommunications.
Over the next three years, 5G networks are expected to bring unprecedented speed, bandwidth, and scope to wireless communications, enabling cars, factories, and cities to be remotely controlled. Every major U.S. carrier has announced 5G network development plans, with early rollouts beginning this year and true nationwide coverage expected by 2020 — assuming that there are no unexpected delays such as additional government regulation.
Citing both speed and expenses, Pai’s statement unambiguously calls for keeping 5G network development in the private sector. According to Pai, experience has proved that “the market, not government, is best positioned to drive innovation and investment” in the wireless space. “Any federal effort to construct a nationalized 5G network,” Pai says, “would be a costly and counterproductive distraction from the policies we need to help the United States win the 5G future.” Pai believes that the government should sell wireless spectrum and set rules for private networks, not build or run the network itself.
By contrast, the NSC proposal focuses on the security and economic risks posed by Chinese hardware within a carrier-built American 5G network. According to an Axios report on the proposal, the NSC claims that “China has achieved a dominant position in the manufacture and operation of network infrastructure” and that “China is the dominant malicious actor in the Information Domain.” As a result, the NSC recommends that America either build a centralized 5G network or coordinate private carriers’ networks. In either case, the U.S. would be guarding against China, eventually protecting “developing countries against Chinese neo-colonial behavior.”
While the NSC proposal might sound like it’s coming out of nowhere, its context is important. U.S. officials have been concerned about Chinese network infiltrations for years, and recently lobbied carriers to avoid dealing with China’s Huawei and ZTE, given their murky ties with China’s government. Some lawmakers believe that China intends to install “backdoors” into 5G networking hardware, enabling Chinese officials to take control of 5G-controlled infrastructure, including smart cities, factories, and traffic. It’s unclear at this stage whether a Chinese threat to American networks is real, but the expected ubiquity of 5G networks has made security a critical consideration.
It should also be noted that Pai is only one of five commissioners of the FCC, and that the NSC proposal was reportedly produced by “a senior National Security Council official” for presentation to other government agencies. So despite what has become public from senior individual actors at each agency, neither organization has spoken conclusively at this stage. Expect plenty of additional discussion and debate as 5G continues its march to reality.
Update at 9:29 a.m. Pacific: The White House has responded to the NSC and FCC stories via Recode, stating that the government currently has no plans to build a 5G network, and that the NSC proposal was outdated and floated by a staff member — “not a reflection of some imminent, major policy announcement — and probably might never be.”