Talk of a national 5G network leaves a lot of questions unanswered

A rumored Trump administration proposal for a national 5G network has drawn a Congressional inquiry about what could be a sea change in spectrum-allocation policy.

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A Pentagon request for information that led to speculation about a nationwide 5G network created by a partnership between the mobile carriers and the government has provoked the wrath of Congressional leaders.

The controversy started with an official request for information from the Pentagon, which asks for guidance about the Department of Defense owning and operating 5G networks for domestic operations. Per Forrester vice president and research director Glenn O’Donnell, the plan as discussed would amount to a public-private partnership funded through government stimulus money and overseen by the DoD, but it would be implemented and operated by one of the country’s major wireless carriers.

According to O’Donnell, the carrier that wins the bid will deploy the required infrastructure, and maintain the network for both government and non-governmental users, using spectrum provided expressly for the purpose by the Pentagon. No direct contact with the Pentagon will be required for use of the network, and the carriers’ existing 5G build plans will not be directly affected.

The impetus for the plan seems to be based in national security concerns. There’s a perception among analysts that the U.S. is losing the race for widely deployed 5G tech to China, and that that poses a security risk for a future conflict.

“The idea is that World War III isn’t going to be fought with bullets and bombs, it’s going to be fought with technology,” said O’Donnell. “If China builds better 5G or blockchain or masters quantum compute, and we don’t, we just lost.”

The network would be open, to some degree, to general use, and Gartner senior director and analyst Bill Ray said that that part of the network could work similarly to Mexico’s Red Compartida or the Canadian Remote Rural Broadband system (CRRBS).

Both are government-backed networks designed to offer connectivity on a wholesale basis—that is, that the spectrum involved will be available to anyone who wants to use it to provide network coverage. So, for example, Verizon might win the tender to build the network, but would have to make the infrastructure available for use by other operators in places where it doesn’t want to sell services.

Wireless carriers are likely to be of two minds in regard to the proposal, experts say. On the one hand, those carriers have lobbied vociferously for decades against federal oversight of their industry. The idea of further government involvement in the deployment of 5G will undoubtedly raise hackles of the major wireless carriers such as Verizon and AT&T, according to Ray, who are already irked at having to share some bands of spectrum like Citizens Broadband Radio Service (CBRS) instead of having it all to themselves.

“The carriers don’t like CBRS, they don’t like spectrum being given away,” he said. “They’re in favor of anything that maintains the oligopoly.”

But, should the plan come to pass, competition to be the vendor that gets to deploy the network will be fierce, given the scope of the network being talked about and the government subsidy that could come with it.

According to Ray, however, there’s one major drawback to modeling America’s proposed national 5G network after either Canada or Mexico’s systems—they don’t work particularly well.

“[The CRRBS] hasn’t been successful, the rules are complicated, and people haven’t made money out of it, and I don’t think the Red Compartida has been terribly successful, either,” he said. “We don’t have a successful model of this anywhere in the world.”

The speculated plan has also drawn harsh criticism from Congress. Two Democrats on the Energy and Commerce committee, Reps. Frank Pallone, Jr. and Mike Doyle, said in open letters to the US Government Accountability Office and the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) that the Pentagon cannot be in the business of running even a partially commercial wireless network, as this circumvents regulations around spectrum allocation.

“It appears now … that DoD is attempting to usurp the NTIA’s authority once again,” said one letter. “No government agency owns spectrum.  Users are allocated spectrum based on need, and if there is a higher use, spectrum can and should be reallocated.”

Moreover, Pallone and Doyle accused the White House of pushing the plan along at the behest of a company called Rivada, Inc., which has “long championed a national network that Rivada would construct and operate using its sharing technology,” and which has close ties to the president and his supporters, including Karl Rove, Peter Thiel and Brad Parscale.

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