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USA Today

The chairman of the Federal Communications Commission and some in the wireless industry have come out against a proposal for the government to build the next generation wireless network.

The Trump Administration is reportedly considering such a nationwide initiative, in part to prevent infiltration by China. The Trump national security team is in the early stages of deciding whether or not to build and operate a super-fast nationwide 5G wireless network, said a senior administration official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he wasn’t authorized to discuss internal deliberations on a national security issue.

A presentation recently made by a senior National Security Council official to senior administration officials was first obtained and reported on by news site Axios.

5G wireless networks, which will provide internet connections ten to 100 times faster than current networks, are expected to improve connectivity for smartphones and tablets, and home broadband networks, as well as self-driving cars and an endless lineup of other devices.

A centralized, secure national 5G network could be built within three years and represent “the 21st century equivalent of the Eisenhower National Highway System,” according to the memo, acquired by Axios.

The senior administration official told USA TODAY that the reported memo is an old one, but its stated strategy is correct. The goal is no secret, the official said, citing a line in the recently released national security strategy: “We will improve America’s digital infrastructure by deploying a secure 5G Internet capability nationwide. These improvements will increase national competitiveness, benefit the environment, and improve our quality of life.”

Another goal, he said, is to thwart Chinese cyber espionage and beat them to the punch on 5G technology.

A final decision is a long way off, the official said, and it will be at least six to eight months before a recommendation reaches the president’s desk.

Building the network could take at least three years, the official said. An alternative to the government building the network itself would be to work with some kind of private consortium, he said.
Supporters and opponents of a government-run plan are leaking information to the press in an effort to influence the debate, the official said.

U.S. wireless providers including Verizon and AT&T already have 5G trials operating, with initial deployment beginning this year and continuing in the months ahead.
 
“The wireless industry agrees that winning the race to 5G is a national priority,” Meredith Attwell Baker, president and CEO of CTIA, a wireless industry trade group, said in a statement. “The government should pursue the free market policies that enabled the U.S. wireless industry to win the race to 4G.”

More: 5G: What is it? What does it mean for your smartphone?

FCC Chairman Ajit Pai said that he opposed any federal proposal to run a national 5G network, instead recommending that government support the ongoing industry projects. 

“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,” he said. “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.”

About 9% of smartphones globally will support 5G in 2019, with the U.S. and South Korea leading in deployment, estimates tech research firm Gartner.

If the U.S. does not build a government-run secure 5G network, the country will be at “a permanent disadvantage to China in the information domain,” according to the memo, which is part of the presentation.

But a national 5G network could  

Sen. Mark R. Warner (D-Va.), who is the vice chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, agreed that there are “serious concerns relating to the Chinese government’s influence into network equipment markets, and I would look forward to working with the Administration on a viable, cost-effective solution to begin addressing those risks.”

But a nationalized 5G network could be “both expensive and duplicative, particularly at a time when the Administration is proposing to slash critical federal investments in R&D and broadband support for unserved areas.”

Concerns have been growing about the potential for Chinese technology deployed in the U.S. to monitor and spy on the American public.

Earlier this month, AT&T had been expected to announce it would make available Chinese-based phone maker Huawei’s flagship Mate 10 Pro smartphone in the U.S., but the plan was scrapped supposedly because of the Trump administration’s hard line on Chinese investment here. A concern: Huawei’s artificial intelligence chips within the phone could pose a threat to the security of the nation’s telecommunication system. 

Another deal, And the $1.2 billion sale of money-transfer service Moneygram to Ant Financial, an affiliate of Chinese e-commerce giant Alibaba, was nixed by the government, too.

And three weeks ago, U.S. Rep. Mike Conaway (R-Texas) introduced “The Defending U.S. Government Communications Act,” proposed legislation to prohibit the U.S. government from purchasing or leasing telecommunications equipment and/or services from Huawei and another Chinese firm ZTE. Conway told USA TODAY that the Chinese have a long-term goal of inroads into U.S. networks. “They’re smart, they’re aggressive, and they’re not to be underestimated,” he said. “I think all of us need to be concerned about the influences of the Chinese government on all those businesses.”

The reasoning behind a government-sponsored initiative: to spur development of needed telecommunications equipment and make it easier to deploy the networks across cities and states, according to the proposal.

AT&T, which recently announced plans to begin offering mobile 5G service in a dozen markets later this year, said in a statement that the industry is “already well down the road” to 5G. “Industry standards have been set (and) trials have been underway since 2016. We have no doubt that America will lead the 5G revolution.”

FCC commissioners of both parties criticized the proposal, too. Commissioner Brendan Carr, a Republican, called the suggestion “a non-starter.” And Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel, a Democrat, agreed that the U.S. is in a race with other nations to deploy 5G, “but the remedy proposed here really misses the mark.”

A federal project could put fail to take into account concerns of local municipalities, said Commissioner Mignon Clyburn, a Democrat. “Localities have a central role to play; the technical expertise possessed by industry should be utilized; and cybersecurity must be a core consideration,” she said. “A network built by the federal government, I fear, does not leverage the best approach needed for our nation to win the 5G race.”

If the leaked proposal is an attempt at a trial balloon, it’s a failed one, said FCC Commissioner Michael O’Rielly, who in a statement, also said the options being considered, if accurate, “are nonsensical and do not recognize the current marketplace.”

“Instead, U.S. commercial wireless companies are the envy of the world and are already rushing ahead to lead in 5G,” O’Rielly said. “I plan to do everything in my power to provide the necessary resources, including allocating additional spectrum and preempting barriers to deployment, to allow this private sector success to continue.”

More: 5G to AR: Here are 7 technologies to watch in 2018

More: Speedy 5G service is coming to smartphones later this year, AT&T says

Follow USA TODAY reporter Mike Snider on Twitter: @MikeSnider.

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