An executive security team running out of the White House floated the idea of building a government-controlled national 5G cellular network as a potential option in protecting the United States from cyberattack and espionage and securing its digital future. While the team named China as the nation's primary competition, the network—and the modernization it would bring—would no doubt improve the general cybersecurity of the nation's infrastructure. Such a network could also improve competition among cellular carriers or, in the extreme case, drive them out of business entirely. 5G cellular service could become a public utility—the "Eisenhower National Highway System for the Information Age."

The impacts on the American economy would be profound. If the 5G network was free for anyone to access—even with a small registration fee—there would be little demand for internet service providers or cellular service companies. With the rise of email, online video streaming, and VoIP, companies like Time Warner, Verizon, AT&T, and Comcast would offer few products otherwise unavailable to the market. The government network would offer a more affordable and modern solution, and may even be able to expand beyond mobile devices to also replace cabled internet.

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Excerpts of the presentation given to the Trump administration. Source: Axios

Indeed, a government 5G network would reshape the American media landscape dramatically. Even if telecommunications companies survived, they would face massive competition not only from one another but also from the presumably well-funded government network. While a purely state run network is unlikely (the government would likely dole out contracts to private companies instead), its impact would be unprecedented.

That is not to say that its impact would be good. While it may drive down prices for consumers, the federal government is not the always steward of liberty it makes itself out to be. A government controlled network's operations would, unless properly legislated at the federal level, be at the whim of the president. The nation's most critical infrastructure—its communications infrastructure—would be localized to a single power. The internet is predicated on the idea that no single entity controls it entirely, but a centralized government 5G network threatens this tenet domestically.

Two major concerns arise out of a government controlled 5G network: speed and privacy. The American government isn't known for its efficiency, and infrastructure as critical as a 5G network would require constant upkeep. Is the government in a position to realistically keep the network functioning? If the government were to shut down again—a scenario that is not unlikely given current governance—would the network and its operators be considered critical enough to continue working?

Secondly, the American government is infamous for spying on its citizens. The separation between the government and the nation's communication infrastructure has not created an impenetrable barrier between the state and its citizens' communications (as the Snowden leaks established), but it prevents the National Security Agency, for example, from having access to all data. (Instead, it only has some.)

A government 5G network could improve access for consumers, but it also raises concerns of privacy and reliability. FCC chairman Ajit Pai opposes the network, though, and that may be reason in and of itself to support it.


Cover photo by Galen Crout / Unsplash