Pai’s announcement came after a report that the Trump administration security officials are considering a plan in which the federal government would build the network and lease access to private providers. Axios reported that the rationale behind the plan is to ensure cybersecurity, particularly the threat of China.
But such a plan to nationalize the wireless network conflicts with much of the philosophy of Pai and other Republican members of the FCC, which is that private enterprise is better equipped to build out a network. The reasoning for the recent repeal of the net neutrality rules was that government regulation was choking off investment by telecom and cable providers in new technology.
“I oppose any proposal for the federal government to build and operate a nationwide 5G network,” Pai said in a statement. “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.”
Pai added, “What government can and should do is to push spectrum into the commercial marketplace and set rules that encourage the private sector to develop and deploy next-generation infrastructure. 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.”
Major telecom companies like AT&T and Verizon are testing 5G technology, which will be able to handle much greater amounts of data than the current networks. It’s expected to usher in a new era of connectivity for use in transportation, medicine and emergency services.
Pai last year established the Broadband Deployment Advisory Committee, and it has focused in part on efforts to close the digital divide, including expansion of private networks into rural and low income areas.
Michael O’Rielly, another Republican on the FCC, also said he opposed any effort to nationalize the 5G network.
“I’ve seen lead balloons tried in D.C. before but this is like a balloon made out of a Ford Pinto,” he said. “If accurate, the Axios story suggests options that may be under consideration by the administration that 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. 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.”
Mignon Clyburn, a Democrat on the FCC, also disagreed with the idea of nationalizing 5G.
“The United States’ leadership in the deployment of 5G is critical and must be done right,” she said. “Localities have a central role to play; the technical expertise possessed by industry should be utilized; and cybersecurity must be a core consideration. A network built by the federal government, I fear, does not leverage the best approach needed for our nation to win the 5G race.”
Update: White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said that the idea of nationalizing the 5G network was part of early conversations — but she did not say that it was no longer on the table. “Right now, we’re in the very earliest stages of the conversation. There are absolutely no decisions made on what that would look like, what role anyone would play in it; simply, the need for a secure network,” she said.