UPDATED 21:30 GMT: The US government is considering options to safeguard itself against a growing threat from China, including a plan to build its own 5G network and thereby nationalise a portion of the country’s mobile infrastructure.
News outlet Axios, which obtained a government report produced by National Security Council officials, reported President Trump’s administration is considering an unprecedented federal takeover of a portion of the nation’s mobile networks.
White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders acknowledged on Monday (29 January) “there are a lot of things on the table” as the government seeks to address the “need for a secure network” outlined in its National Security Strategy report. However, she added the administration is in the “very earliest stages of the conversation” and said “absolutely no decisions [have been] made on what that would look like, what role anyone would play in it.”
The government is reportedly considering two options. The first would see the government build, and pay for, a centralised 5G network within three years, representing the nationalisation of infrastructure which was traditionally private and will no doubt result in an outcry from the mobile industry.
Operators would then be able to rent capacity from the government’s new network.
The second option would see operators, as expected, build their own 5G networks. While the document noted this would prove less commercially disruptive to the industry, it would also take longer and be more costly.
An unnamed source familiar with the government report, however, told Axios only a single centralised network would be sufficient in protecting the US against China and other bad actors. The source added the US government will now debate whether or not to construct the network, or whether the country’s operators could form a consortium to build the network together.
The report states the US needs a 5G network in place as soon as possible because “China has achieved a dominant position in the manufacture and operation of national network infrastructure” and “is the dominant malicious actor in the information domain”.
Reuters reported plans for a government-built network is being debated at a low level at this stage and is still some way away from being considering by Trump (pictured) himself.
Several questions will also have to be addressed should the government push ahead. For example, it is unclear whether the state holds enough spectrum to build its own 5G network, given the country’s operators have spent billions acquiring airwaves suitable for future 5G launches in recent years. The move would also likely face opposition from the Federal Communications Commission, after chairman Ajit Pai branded the idea a “costly and counterproductive distraction”.
T-Mobile US spent $8 billion on spectrum in 2017, while AT&T already said it plans to launch mobile 5G services at the end of this year. A representative for the operator told Reuters it could not comment on the government’s plans because it had not seen the document.
Whether or not a nationalised 5G network comes to fruition, the Trump administration notably stepped up scrutiny against Chinese technology companies operating in the US, amid allegations of spying.
Earlier this month, AT&T scrapped a planned partnership with Huawei, while US lawmakers reportedly told all US companies to also cut commercial ties with the Chinese vendor. Texas congressman Michael Conaway also introduced a bill proposing a ban on the US government using services or equipment made by Huawei or ZTE.