Why a government-owned 5G network is still a bad idea

Don’t give up on market-led innovation when we need it most

A man walks outside Pennsylvania Station in New York City in August. Secure and competitive 5G networks should be the domain of the private sector, not the government, Mehlman and Boucher write.  (Noam Galai/Getty Images file photo)
A man walks outside Pennsylvania Station in New York City in August. Secure and competitive 5G networks should be the domain of the private sector, not the government, Mehlman and Boucher write. (Noam Galai/Getty Images file photo)
Posted October 21, 2020 at 6:00am

Some say that there’s a lot wrong with our nation and our economy right now, but no one’s pointing the finger at internet innovation. Thanks to decades of investment in ever-more-advanced networks and a market that rewards risk, America built and deployed an advanced and flexible broadband infrastructure that has proved critical to maintaining our economy, education and community during the global pandemic.

While we still need to close the digital divide to achieve universal access and affordability, our private sector-led innovation and deployment model has clearly demonstrated its vast superiority to government-led, centrally planned alternatives.

So why is the Defense Department considering a new plan for a “government-owned, government-operated” 5G wireless network?

It makes no sense. As before, the private sector should continue development and deployment of competitive broadband wireless networks to get them into the hands of consumers, businesses and government users as quickly, efficiently, and securely as possible.

Of course, there is a role for government. Because the unique properties of 5G will require large amounts of spectrum, the government should be pushing more spectrum into the commercial marketplace under rules that encourage innovators to develop and deploy next-generation infrastructure. Spectrum auctions allow the market to indicate which companies can build this infrastructure fastest.

But nationalizing 5G, in contrast, would dispense with market mechanisms and the critical imperative to continuously improve or fail. The state-owned enterprises in the former Soviet Union and modern Communist China reveal how government-sanctioned operators undermine markets, competition, innovation and the entrepreneurship that makes America’s economy great. 

Nineteen Republican senators have weighed in, citing the success of the private sector in 4G deployment and urging President Donald Trump to abandon the idea of a government-owned 5G network. On the Democratic side, House Energy and Commerce Chairman Frank Pallone and Mike Doyle, chairman of the panel’s Communications and Technology Subcommittee, began an inquiry into the Defense Department’s potential steps toward a national 5G network and said in a recent statement that the proposal “will do nothing but slow the deployment of this critical technology. The plan … undermines the careful and complicated work done by the FCC and the [National Telecommunications and Information Administration] to allocate this spectrum for commercial use.” They noted that every FCC commissioner, including Chairman Ajit Pai, opposes “a nationalized 5G network.”

Two months ago, President Trump promised that “the American wireless industry will be able to build and operate 5G networks.” So why have a duplicative and expensive government-operated system to compete with private employers when the market is on track to build out secure, robust, competitive 5G networks?

Like a bad penny, this is the fifth time this ill-advised idea has surfaced. On the previous occasions, American telecommunications networks were reaffirmed as the domain of the private sector. A government-owned or government-supported network would simply be slower to build and slower to deploy. America needs 5G to maintain its global competitive advantage in technology leadership, and the sooner the better. 

Bruce Mehlman served as assistant secretary of Commerce for technology policy in the George W. Bush administration. He is a partner at Mehlman Castagnetti Rosen and Thomas and a founding co-chairman of the Internet Innovation Alliance, which advocates extending broadband internet, particularly 5G wireless connectivity, to every American. 

Rick Boucher represented Virginia’s 9th District as a Democrat from 1983 to 2011 and is a former chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Communications and the Internet. He is the honorary chairman of the IIA and an attorney in the Washington, D.C., office of the law firm Sidley Austin.