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Hiawatha Bray | Tech Lab

5G trial balloon bursts into flames

Federal Communications Commission chairman Ajit Pai was among many telecom regulators and industry groups voicing opposition Monday to the idea of a government-built wireless network.
Jacquelyn Martin/Associated Press/File 2018
Federal Communications Commission chairman Ajit Pai was among many telecom regulators and industry groups voicing opposition Monday to the idea of a government-built wireless network.

Good news, everybody. Donald Trump isn’t going to nationalize the wireless broadband industry after all.

But the fact that somebody in the president’s National Security Council was at least thinking about it shows how seriously the administration is taking America’s technological competition with China, and the immense potential of next-generation wireless technology.

The teacup-sized tempest began Sunday night, when the online news service Axios published a startling report based on an NSC memo and PowerPoint presentation.

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The Axios story said the administration was considering a plan to have the federal government build a nationwide network based on 5G, the next generation of wireless data service. A 5G network could deliver data at multiple gigabits per second, faster than any of today’s home broadband services, but without the need to run costly optical fibers to every US home. With 5G, superfast, affordable broadband could be made available to virtually everyone, like cellular service.

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The nation’s telecom titans, including AT&T and Verizon, are just beginning experimental deployments of 5G, but somebody in the administration is afraid they’re not moving fast enough. So the feds would take control of the necessary radio frequencies, spend billions on the necessary equipment, hire the necessary workers, and build the whole shebang. Once built, the government would contract with wireless companies to run the network.

And all this was supposed to get done in three years. It’s the Manhattan Project, minus the mushroom clouds.

What’s the hurry? According to Axios, it’s all about China and its growing prowess in telecom and artificial intelligence. The proposal states that “China has achieved a dominant position in the manufacture and operation of network infrastructure,” according to Axios. Sure enough, China’s Huawei is the world’s largest maker of equipment for wireless networks. And China last year announced a plan to match the United States in artificial intelligence by 2020 and to dominate the industry by 2030.

Someone at NSC figured that a massive investment in 5G will preserve American leadership in these fields. But the unknown author of the agency’s memo didn’t talk it over with anyone at the Federal Communications Commission, the federal agency that would oversee such a network. On Monday morning, the FCC’s chairman, Ajit Pai, gave the suggestion the back of his hand. The four other FCC commissioners, two Republicans and two Democrats, were just as dismissive. A Monday afternoon report from the website Recode cited unnamed White House officials who say the memo was just an out-of-date trial balloon, and not a serious strategy.

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That’s a good thing. Giving the federal government a monopoly in 5G is a recipe for technological stagnation. Today, US wireless companies fight like wolves for market share. Remember when 4G meant data speeds of around 10 megabits per second? Today, T-Mobile offers a 4G service that’s more than 10 times faster. That’s competition at work. Don’t expect that kind of relentless improvement from a government-owned monopoly.

Besides, if a 5G network is vital to national security, you’d be crazy to want just one. A cyberattack might take it down, with devastating effects. We’re far safer if the Big Four wireless companies each deploys its own 5G network.

A national 5G network won’t help American wireless networking companies because the world’s top makers of such equipment are all based in Europe, South Korea, and China. Neither will it help America stay on top in artificial intelligence. Flinging an extra billion or two at AI researchers at MIT or Harvard or the National Science Foundation would probably be a better use of money.

And who says the US government could even build such a network? Australia launched a similar project in 2009. Nine years and $38 billion later, Australia’s average Internet speed ranks 50th in the world, according to research from Akamai Technologies Inc. That’s slower than the Internet in Russia or Kenya.

The United States has plenty of reasons to worry about the Chinese challenge. According to a report last week from the National Science Foundation, China is advancing on every front. It ranks number two in research and development spending and is quickly catching up to the United States. Its scientists publish more research on engineering topics than Americans. China also cranks out 1.65 million science and engineering graduates per year, more than twice the US total.

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If China were just another liberal democracy, I’d shrug. But it’s a country that bulldozes churches and throws people in prison for holding the wrong opinions. I’d rather they didn’t dominate the global economy. But nationalizing 5G would have been a lousy way to prevent it.

Hiawatha Bray can be reached at hiawatha.bray@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeTechLab.