Sam Lewis

5G Nationalization in the U.S.

On January 28, Axios Media, Inc. published a Trump Administration report on the stakes of 5G wireless network deployment.1 The report, authored by the National Security Council, is undated but likely was created in late December 2017 or early January 2018.2 It advocates for the creation of a nationalized 5G—or fifth generation—wireless network,3 which will offer speeds up to 100 times faster than those that exist today, support functionality beyond cellular phones, and form the basis for technologies such as driverless cars.4

To maximize 5G’s speed and diverse functionality, the network will likely be built on small cell technology. Small cell technology consists of “dozens of small, unobtrusive shoe-box sized cells mounted on street lights, buildings and other public infrastructure” within individual city blocks.5 Unlike the 4G system, which is more dependent on hardware, 5G hardware will run software that can be updated remotely to increase speed and add capabilities as new developments arise. As a result, 5G will be the last ground-up network in the United States for the foreseeable future.6

The U.S. government report contends that 5G infrastructure deployment is critical for several reasons. Proper 5G deployment is vital to U.S. national security, as the country that creates the first effective 5G system and controls the development of system components will have political, economic, and military advantages on a global scale.7 These effects extend to social and economic benefits in adjacent areas such as the Internet of Things (IoT), machine learning, and artificial intelligence. A system that uses components made by foreign countries could be less secure and allow potentially hostile nations to steal sensitive data and weaponize IoT sensors and tools, such as remotely crashing driverless cars.8 The report only identifies China as a nation that presents such a possible threat, and though it does not envision concrete plans, it characterizes China as possessing the capabilities for doing so.9

The report envisions a government-built, -funded, and -owned 5G network that would be leased to wireless carriers.10 Such a nationalized system faces numerous questions concerning its effectiveness and feasibility. Private carriers currently own licenses for the wireless spectrum on which a nationalized 5G network would likely rely. The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) does not have the legal authority to revoke these licenses, as confirmed by Supreme Court precedent.11 Though the report suggests that the government could take control of this spectrum through eminent domain, such a move would undoubtedly trigger uproar from current licensees—who have already expended considerable resources on developing 5G networks—that would be costly and time consuming for the government.12 The internet is inherently open; a nationalized system that connects to other private systems or systems in other countries could create security risks.13 A nationalized system could also generate new issues that would not occur with privately owned infrastructure. Experts question whether it would be subject to weaker privacy constraints than would the private alternative, thus allowing the government to collect private data more easily.14

Though experts, regulators, and politicians share security concerns about our next-generation wireless network, reaction to the document after Axios’ publication was swift and negative: most saw it as poorly targeted and excessive in its scope when compared to the risk and the existing wireless environment.15 All five FCC commissioners spoke out against the plan.16 Even with FCC commissioner support, Congress would have to approve the spending, and would likely have to pass legislation to provide increased authority to the FCC to enact such a plan.17

The White House has already announced that the plan has since been updated and is still several months away from reaching the president’s desk.18 Still, the plan confirms that some within the Administration view China as a threat to our 5G infrastructure and broader national security and has sparked public conversation about risks and potential answers.19 Recent reactions suggest that the extent to which the White House and FCC will agree to impose strict standards on 5G networks is not yet settled. Moreover, it remains to be seen how private carriers will change their 5G development and deployment plans based on proposed regulatory changes.

* GLTR Staff Member; Georgetown Law, J.D. expected 2018; Princeton University, B.A. 2011. ©2018, Sam Lewis.