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FCC’s Pai, Industry Criticize Prospect of Federal Control of 5G

‘I oppose any proposal for the federal government to build and operate a nationwide 5G network’

FCC Chairman Ajit Pai. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)
FCC Chairman Ajit Pai. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)

Federal Communications Commission Chairman Ajit Pai and a trade group for wireless providers said Monday they opposed federal control of the technology that drives the next generation of wireless service, known as 5G. 

“I oppose any proposal for the federal government to build and operate a nationwide 5G network,” Pai said in a statement responding to a report that the National Security Council is considering such an option. The news outlet Axios reported the thinking, citing a PowerPoint document. The report said the administration is considering a single national network. 

“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,” Pai said.

There has been no final decision about a nationwide 5G network beyond a consensus within the administration that a secure network is needed, White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said Monday.

Led by the big four mobile providers — Verizon Wireless, AT&T, T-Mobile and Sprint — the U.S. telecommunications industry is expected to roll out 5G technology over the next several years. The technology is seen as crucial to make driverless cars commonplace and for other applications such as remote medical care. Some new networks are expected to begin service later this year and will offer more bandwidth and better reliability, channeling rivers of lightning-fast data through flocks of small cells to smartphones, self-driving cars and web-connected gadgets.

Meredith Attwell Baker, president and CEO of CTIA, the wireless industry trade group, also resisted the idea of a broader federal role on 5G networks and called for continuing the approach used to develop the current fourth generation of wireless service, or 4G.

“The wireless industry agrees that winning the race to 5G is a national priority. The government should pursue the free market policies that enabled the U.S. wireless industry to win the race to 4G,” Baker said in a written statement Monday.

Pai has pushed for a light regulatory touch in dealing with telecommunications providers and online business. He was in the majority when the FCC voted 3-2 along party lines in December to repeal so-called net neutrality mandates on internet service providers.

The FCC chairman made the case for continuing that approach on Monday. “The market, not government, is best positioned to drive innovation and investment,” he said, adding that government should “push spectrum into the commercial marketplace and set rules that encourage the private sector to develop and deploy next-general infrastructure.”

The push for close federal scrutiny of the deployment of 5G networks comes as a number of lawmakers have raised questions about the role that some Chinese companies, including Huawei, a telecommunications manufacturer, have in marketing mobile telephones and equipment that could be used in U.S. networks.

A bipartisan group of 18 members of the Senate and House intelligence committees sent a Dec. 20 letter to the FCC that voiced concern regarding Huawei’s discussions about a potential partnership with AT&T and about the potential use of Chinese telecommunications equipment in government systems.  They cited Huawei’s “ties to the Chinese Communist Party, as well as to Chinese intelligence and security services and its “pattern of disregard for the intellectual property rights” of U.S. companies.  

Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., vice chairman of the Intelligence Committee, said in a statement Monday that the U.S. needs a “viable, cost-effective solution” to deal with concerns about “the Chinese government’s influence” in network equipment markets.

“Constructing a nationalized 5G network would be expensive and duplicative,” he said. Warner called for investing in research universities and for having an immigration system that “attract the brightest minds in the world” instead of “rehashing old debates on construction of a standalone federal broadband network.”  

Sen. Orrin G. Hatch, R-Utah, offered a cool appraisal of the idea.  “I want to look at it carefully to make sure that it’s not counter-productive,” Hatch said Monday afternoon.

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