The US government is considering seizing the spectrum to build a nationwide 5G network, new leaks suggest, though Trump’s own FCC chief strongly opposes the plans. 5G, or fifth-generation, networks are the next step in not only mobile broadband, promising much greater speeds than today’s 4G LTE networks, but more ubiquitous connectivity in general, as more and more devices join the Internet of Things (IoT).
That will take advantage of 5G’s potential for much greater power frugality than earlier generations of wireless connectivity. However, it will also present an increasing security risk. More connected devices, if not managed and secured properly, will also offer more ways for hackers and rival nation states to compromise those networks.
It’s that which appears to have concerned the Trump administration, and perhaps not without some reason. Chinese hackers have been blamed for compromising a number of high-profile – and potentially dangerous – systems, including commercial airlines, power stations, and more. Meanwhile, investigations are still underway around what impact Russian hacking might have had on the outcome of the US presidential election.
According to Axios, the Trump administration is considering heavy-handed ways to prevent that from escalating come the arrival of 5G and more ubiquitous connectivity. A presentation and memo – both produced by a senior official from the National Security Council, and recently shown to senior members of other agencies in the US government – have leaked, making the recommendation that the US requires “a centralized nationwide 5G network within three years.” According to the documents, there are two possible ways of doing that.
On the one hand, the US government could both pay for and handle the construction of a single 5G network. On the other, wireless providers would build their own 5G networks. However, according to insiders familiar with the motivations of the documents’ preparation, experts are doubtful as to whether the second option could ever provide sufficient protection from hacks by rival nation states and others.
As the memo paints it, while there’d be a significant investment required to construct a nationwide, government-run 5G network in the US, there would be a number of benefits that could come from it. For a start, it’s suggested, it could be a source of ongoing income: US carriers, like AT&T and Verizon, could rent access to the system. It could also be used as a baseline – or even a mandatory requirement – for each state’s implementation of wireless equipment. That’s been topical recently, what with push-back against using foreign hardware providers such as Huawei and ZTE.
It could even end up being exported abroad. One possibility the memo apparently outlines is offering the technology to partners and emerging markets internationally, as an attempt to “inoculate developing countries” against China’s influence. It’s unclear whether that would be on a paid basis.
While the administration is yet to comment on the leak, FCC chairman Ajit Pai has not been slow to make his opinion heard. In a statement issued today, he vocally opposed the idea of a nationwide 5G network. Such a scheme, Pai argues, would run counter to lessons learned with the roll-out of 4G, in addition to being needlessly expensive.
“I oppose any proposal for the federal government to build and operate a nationwide 5G network. The main lesson to draw from the wireless sector’s development over the past three decades — including American leadership in 4G — is that the market, not government, is best positioned to drive innovation and investment. What government can and should do is to push spectrum into the commercial marketplace and set rules that encourage the private sector to develop and deploy next-generation infrastructure. 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” Ajit Pai, chairman, FCC
Critics of Pai will undoubtedly point to longstanding concerns that the chairman has the interests of telecommunications businesses in the forefront of his mind. That’s certainly been one of the more vocal complaints about his attitude toward net neutrality. However, Pai is unlikely to be the only person who has a problem with the concept of the government pumping what would likely amount to billions of dollars into a 5G network of its own.
Whether this scheme goes ahead – or whether too much is being read into one memo – remains to be seen. However, there’s no denying that network security issues are going to be increasingly prevalent in the coming years, as more and more devices get online.