Trump’s 2020 campaign manager calls for 5G nationalization

The notion of the U.S. government nationalizing or centralizing an industry is rearing its ugly head once again.

This is President Donald Trump’s campaign manager, for those wondering, and it’s not the first time someone in the Administration has suggested 5G nationalization. Axios reported back in February the admin had the wonderfully awful idea, which was quickly brushed aside by Breitbart and Recode. The Air Force general who wrote the memo left the White House shortly thereafter.

But now it’s back and – much like a comic book supervillain or the threat of Ragnarok – doesn’t appear to be going away. Defenders of a nationalized/centralized 5G network believe it’s important to get ahead of foreign countries on the technology front and basically be able to claim we were “First!” in the rollout. Telecom industry lobbyists are also pushing for America to get faster in 5G development, especially since an April report from Analysys Mason showed China was in the lead, for the moment.

Analysys Mason ranked 10 countries on their 5G readiness. The findings show China, South Korea, the United States and Japan as the lead competitors in that order. China’s narrow lead is due to a combination of both proactive government policies and industry momentum. The study attributes the United States’ high ranking to the fact that America’s wireless industry is a global leader in preparing to deploy 5G commercially, with significant investments in these next-generation networks.

“The United States will not get a second chance to win the global 5G race,” said Meredith Attwell Baker, CTIA President and CEO. “I’m confident that America can win and reap the significant economic benefits of 5G wireless due to our world-leading commercial investments. Today’s research highlights the importance of policymaker action in 2018 to reform local zoning rules and unlock access to mid-band spectrum as part of a broader spectrum pipeline plan. I’m optimistic we will leapfrog China because key leaders in the Administration, on Capitol Hill, and at the FCC are focused on the reforms needed to win the race.”

The question is what kind of reforms will the Administration push for, and whether they’ll be free market-based or government centralization. It looks like centralization/nationalization is winning out so far, at least with the louder voices.

The good news is those who are against the idea of 5G nationalization are fighting back by reminding everyone just how fantastically wretched America’s previous nationalization initiatives turned out. FreedomWorks Director of Policy Patrick Hedger was pretty quick to throw up a big red stop sign.

“Government is the antithesis of speed. The DMV, the Post Office, Amtrak. Republicans ought to know better. We’ve had government-imposed single telecom networks before and we don’t need Ma Bell-style 5G now. We hope President Trump continues to follow his deregulatory instincts and keeps government out of the way of the 5G future.”

There’s a lot of danger and short-sighted thinking when it comes to this notion of centralization/nationalization. The short-sightedness is pretty easy to point out: there’s no reason to believe whoever gets 5G first will immediately be the one everyone else has to copy. R Street Institute’s Paul Rosenzweig wrote in January just how divergent network technology is across the globe.

The argument underlying the leaked proposal is the idea that if China develops the networks and devices first, then China sets the standards which the US will have to adopt, which could theoretically have security vulnerabilities to the benefit of the maker. This seems to be the driving force behind the references to “security”: by building out 5G first, the United States sets the standards for what the networks and protocols look like. That seems highly implausibe. In the first instance, even if China were to develop a set of 5G standards there is no reason that the US (and other western countries could not, preferentially) adopt their won protocols. Today, as I travel the globe, my handset switches back and forth from Global to CDMA to LTE, etc. In other words, the premise that a single standard will define the network seems to me to be a weak one.

Let’s also not forget whoever is able to plant the flag down as, “First!” on 5G doesn’t necessarily mean it will be the best. Wired pointed out in 2010 Sprint was going to be the first company to have 4G network available in the U.S. WhistleOut reported eight years later Sprint may have been first, but they’re last in total coverage. It’s sometimes a good idea to judiciously roll out technology, instead of rushing out a bad product.

As for the idea the government could protect a 5G grid better than the free market, did we completely forget the entire OMB hack? Massive databases full of information become huge targets versus smaller databases with different passwords, technology, etc. There’s always a way to get inside a huge vault, or even smaller vaults built the exact same way. It’s the definition of insanity to think we can keep doing some version of centralization and, ‘get it right somehow’ when it pretty much fails every single time.

The free market is handling technology advancement, even if it might not be going as fast as we want it to. Yes, dropped calls, bad reception, and slower mobile download speeds are annoying. It’s just not smart to put stock in a centralized or nationalized database, even if it means beating foreign countries to advanced technology. Being first doesn’t mean you’re the best. The U.S. should reject any notion of 5G nationalization/centralization.