The White House says it is in "the very earliest stages of the conversation" about a nationalized 5G broadband network, but the idea is already getting sharp pushback after a memo leaked showing the administration considering it.
During a White House briefing on Monday, press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said that the administration had not made any decisions on the matter beyond that a “secure network” is needed.
“There are absolutely no decisions made on what that would look like, what role anyone would play in it,” she told reporters.
National Security Council spokesperson Marc Raimondi backed Huckabee Sanders’s comments, leaving the door open on nationalizing the 5G network.
“All options are under consideration, and we are firmly committed to working with the American telecom and technical sectors to support a solution,” Raimondi said in an emailed statement to The Hill.
He declined to comment on the memo directly.
Their answers follow an Axios report detailing a National Security Council memo and PowerPoint which propose a nationalized wireless broadband network designed to guard against state-sponsored hacks by China.
The NSC documents argue for two options: either that a nationalized 5G network within the next three years would be beneficial in staving off foreign cybersecurity threats, or that wireless providers create their own networks to compete against one another. It contends that the second option would be more costly and time-consuming.
Outside the White House, federal officials swiftly shot down the proposal.
The morning after the news of the proposal, Federal Communications Commission (FCC) Chairman Ajit Pai, a Republican, derided the idea of nationalizing wireless broadband.
“Any federal effort to construct a nationalized 5G network would be a costly and counterproductive distraction from the policies we need to help the United States win the 5G future,” Pai said in a statement.
Pai’s reproach was supported by unanimous disapproval of the 5G memo from the other four FCC commissioners, who represent both parties, and criticism from the technology industry.
“There is nothing that would slam the breaks more quickly on our hard-won momentum to be the leader in the global race for 5G network deployment more quickly than the federal government stepping-in to build those networks,” said Jonathan Spalte, president of the telecommunications trade association USTelecom.
Robert McDowell, chief policy adviser at the wireless trade association Mobile Future, criticized the government's track record on such public projects.
“If you look at the history, the U.S. has lead the world with next-gen mobile broadband build-out and implementation and that has been with private risk capital and a private marketplace,” he said. “This is the antithesis of anything that would work.”
It’s not clear what prompted the memo, and the industry says that it was largely unaware of any push for such a network.
Several senior officials at major trade technology and telecommunications trade associations who keep in regular contact with the White House on matters of technology policy said that until the report on Sunday night, they had not been familiar with the proposal to nationalize high-speed wireless broadband networks.
“From every Republican I’ve spoken with and some Democrats, this has been a head-scratcher,” said McDowell. “I don’t see where the oxygen is and I think it will be short-lived.”
The memo does follow a trend of politicians and government officials drafting policy out of concern for Chinese cybersecurity attacks. Such prior efforts though have focused on keeping Chinese firms out of the country and of government contracts.
Lawmakers, for example, have recently introduced legislation that would bar the federal government from contracting with firms that use equipment produced by Huawei or its smaller Chinese competitor, ZTE, under the logic that using their could give China a backdoor into the U.S. governments’ data.
Opponents of nationalization say that national security concerns are important to them but believe that involving government isn’t the way to go about it.
“A government that can’t protect the data of its own employees, I struggle with the notion it’s going to run a complete architecture and network that will be hack-free,” House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Greg WaldenGregory (Greg) Paul WaldenEx-Sen. Cory Gardner joins lobbying firm Ex-Rep. John Shimkus joins lobbying firm Lobbying world MORE (R-Ore.) said during a technology industry conference on Monday.
—Updated at 5:08 p.m.