National security advisors to the president are weighing a construction plan for a national 5G network — either to be paid for and built by the U.S. government or built by wireless providers, according to a leaked memo and presentation reported by Axios. To build out a national 5G network by 2020, the number of cell cites would need to increase from 150,000 to 300,000, reports Axios.
This "Eisenhower National Highway System for the Information Age" would mark a nationalization of digital infrastructure that has historically been provided by private companies. The memo set out a three year time period to get the job done, but building a national network would be no easy feat. Cell towers would be required every 100-200 meters because 5G signals cannot extend very far before being absorbed by atmospheric gases or blocked by buildings, according to Motherboard.
The memo cited cybersecurity concerns, most notably China as the "dominant competitor" in network infrastructure and the "dominant malicious actor in the information domain." The powerpoint said a lack of immediate action would lead to a Chinese victory politically, economically and militarily.
Whether or not the plan is actually or still being considered, it raises important questions about how the digital infrastructure the economy increasingly relies on is built, who runs it and what forces shape its development.
On one side, a national 5G network could be key to extending digital environments to all corners of the country. Rural areas would be the first focus of a national network, according to the memo. More access means more opportunities, and many people are starting to view internet access as a utility.
A 5G network is critical to an economy that the IoT, AR/VR and autonomous vehicles, among other advanced technologies, are set to take over. By extending a 5G network across the country and nationalizing it like a utility, these markets will have a strong foundation to build out on. But companies have already been working on 5G capabilities for years with plans to install networks in areas across the country.
Is the market competitive enough for businesses to take the lead? The memo identified Verizon as the only carrier with "true 5G capability" with a high band spectrum and said that Sprint and T-Mobile can provide coverage only at mid or low bands. This led to the conclusion that Verizon would dominate the national market.
By running a 5G network through the government, monopolization of the market can be deterred or avoided. But for those wary of the government, taking such infrastructure out of the free market will inhibit investment and development in the long run — not to mention push out the free market forces especially touted by the current conservative administration.
I oppose any proposal for the federal government to build and operate a nationwide 5G network. The market, not the government, is best positioned to drive in novation and investment. https://t.co/viIDB4mb0f pic.twitter.com/hgxRLtwoU4— Ajit Pai (@AjitPaiFCC) January 29, 2018
Sound familiar to arguments against the Obama-era net neutrality regulations? Many people don't think the government is always the most efficient or effective body to carry a plan out, so the plan raised many concerns among the government wary.
Nationalizing 5G infrastructure would step on the toes of many local governments. Many cities and states are already in full fledged 5G efforts, and removing local autonomy can make the situation more complicated, especially in terms of where and how to install new infrastructure. But, on the other hand, centralizing direction does offer the benefit of equalizing access beyond urban, tech savvier areas.