Industry Voices—Lowenstein’s View: We don't need to nationalize 5G, but here's how the government can help


The wireless world has been aswirl with reports that national security officials are considering a plan to take control of 5G networks. First off, let’s all calm down … this ain’t. gonna. happen. The FCC is not in favor, industry would be massively opposed, and there isn’t much trust right now in our federal government being able to do much of anything, no less building and running a national wireless network. And dating back to NextWave and Lightsquared (and the more recent failure of NBN in Australia), there isn’t exactly a positive track record on national wholesale networks.

That said, the National Security Council proposal serves a useful purpose: as the catalyst for a conversation about the role of government in our next-generation broadband network. These are different times. Technology is becoming a front in an emerging battle with China for leadership and influence on the global stage. Some might even call it a "cool war." And given what we’ve learned about China (and Russia) in the past year, concerns about security are legitimate.

It would be a bad idea for the government to get into the business of operating a 5G network or dictating a business model. That would be counter to the way the U.S. wireless market has developed over the past 30 years, in a way that for the most part has been successful and world-leading. However, I think there are several ways the government can play a critical role in ensuring U.S. 5G leadership:

  • Make 5G spectrum available ASAP. This would include the mmWave bands proposed in the 2016 Spectrum Frontiers proposal, plus new spectrum in the midband, which would be positive for mobility and new market entrants. The Cold War was a major influencer of the construction of the U.S. Interstate Highway system. Spectrum is the 21st century equivalent of that.
  • The national security concern is real. Actual events, and the tea leaves, tell us that there are indeed very legitimate national security concerns when considering the who, how, and where of next-gen telecom networks and infrastructure. At the very least, the NSC proposal should serve to elevate the issue of security in the 5G conversation.
  • Don't operate the network, but use a different model for spectrum "auctions." Rather than spectrum auction proceeds going into the Department of Treasury and then who knows where, earmark it specifically for the 5G build-out. This could be in the form of tax credits, R&D, or funding for 5G in areas where the economics/business case alone might not 100% justify, such as more rural areas, or for certain types of IoT applications. The funds can also be earmarked for university/educational programs related to 5G, so we can develop the talent here in the U.S.
  • Facilitate small cell and fiber deployment. 5G is going to be very dependent on small cells. We need the federal government to be more involved in taking steps to facilitate the acquisition and use of sites for small cells. Perhaps even government facilities/infrastructure. Additionally, government policy that enables the deployment of fiber deep into the network will go a long way toward the development of a world-leading broadband infrastructure.
  • Promote U.S. firms, R&D, and jobs for 5G. Create incentives to have more 5G-related manufacturing, software development, R&D, and jobs in the United States. This would create additional incentive for leading network equipment manufacturers such as Ericsson and Nokia to invest even more in facilities and jobs in the U.S., and jump-start the efforts of new breed firms such as Parallel Wireless.
  • Fund university and academic programs. Talk to the leading operators and equipment manufacturers, and there’s deep concern that there will be a shortage of talent with the skills needed for future telecom networks. With the trend toward 5G, NFV/SDN and so on, that’s a different skill set than that of many telecom engineers today. We need to be teaching the right skill set in high schools, universities, and other vocational training programs. And we need to be keeping the top tech talent here, not training them here and then letting them go back to China or wherever.
  • Promote competition in broadband. 5G is going to be about mobile, but also about broadband. Currently, the U.S. wireless industry is competitive, but the broadband market is not. With 5G, fixed and wireless broadband are more intertwined. We need greater competition, new players, and new business models.
  • View 5G as part of a broader 21st century infrastructure plan. Thinking a bit more broadly here, we are competing with China in the areas of AI, electric vehicles, self-driving cars, renewable energy, and so on. Just as spectrum is the "real estate" that will facilitate the further development of mobile broadband, we also need to look at the bigger picture of 21st century infrastructure and next-generation transportation solutions. 5G is going to be a big part of that, from the technology enabling self-driving cars and connected cars, to smart cities, and other intelligent solutions to improve and remake our transportation system.
  • Use this as an opportunity to think about what our broader national telecom strategy/policy should look like. As I argued in a recent FierceWireless column, it’s time to revisit the 1996 Telecom Act.

“Industrial policy” is a term non grata in these parts. But if you look at success stories in wireless and broadband in other parts of the world—3G in Europe, mobile innovation in Japan, broadband and 5G in South Korea, and the success of companies such as Huawei and ZTE in China—government policy and funding have played an important role. So let’s turn that NSC document into a positive, and get government and industry on a fast track to work together and ensure that the U.S. is a global leader in 5G, with all the spinoff benefits that entails.  

Mark Lowenstein, a leading industry analyst, consultant, and commentator, is managing director of Mobile Ecosystem. Click here to subscribe to his free Lens on Wireless monthly newsletter, or follow him on Twitter at @marklowenstein