The FCC originally looked like a diligent foot-soldier for the President, but with the nationalised 5G infrastructure argument seemingly emerging again, heads are set to butt.
Reports have been emerging in various corners that the White House is revisiting plans to develop a nationalised 5G network, a plan originally raised in January 2018 to keep the US at the front of the technology arms race. The plan was shot-down back then, and the FCC has already raised set the tone of resistance through social media over the last week or so.
Following the President’s twitter rant last month, which saw the Commander-in-Chief bemoan progress being made by the telcos, FCC chiefs set their position out quite firmly.
In the case of FCC Chairman Ajit Pai, a retweeted message from 2018 reiterates a point which was made when the plans were first suggested; hands-off from the government is the best stance. This seems to be one of the only positions the Democrat and Republican representatives on the board of the FCC seem to agree on; the telcos should build the US 5G network, not the government.
Although the White House has not released any official statement confirming its favour of a nationalised 5G infrastructure, the defensive position entrenched by Pai and Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel suggest there have been conversations which neither like. These tweets could be viewed as in-direct opposition, with the pair attempting to get ahead of the game.
According to Politico, this isn’t the only conflict which is emerging either. The Trump 2020 re-election campaign team have been pushing the benefits of a government-owned, wholesale infrastructure, while the current Trump political administration are keen to avoid the topic. While the disagreement is hearsay and reports for the moment, it would not surprise us if the Trump campaign led with such a promise.
This sort of political manoeuvre fits perfectly into the Trump playbook from his first election campaign. It hits pain-points for US citizens in the politically less-attractive states, the very people Trump was able to mobilise in 2016. However, attacking the digital divide in rural communities is not a new trick, Hilary Clinton used this tactic in 2016 also, but a nationalised 5G infrastructure will appeal to those who feel ignored by corporates. Trump has shown he can communicate effectively to those who believe they are under-represented by mainstream politics, and this angle could prove to be an effective tool.
The idea which seems to have been raised here is to create a wholesale network in partnership with a private third-party. The government would fund the deployment of the network, while the third-party would manage the operations and wholesale business, creating a system which would operate like the electricity market, with parties ‘purchasing connectivity’ on a rolling basis.
Theoretically, this position sounds wonderful. The arguments for nationalisation are often very compelling, and it could be justified as an effective way to spend tax-payers money. However, nationalised businesses and infrastructure have been shown to be ineffective time and time again. The government is not equipped to manage such projects in the long-run and not savvy enough to compete against private entities when they emerge. It might sound very appealing to voters who are stuck in the chasm of the digital divide, but it will not help the US in the global technology arms race.
As Brenden Carr, a Republican FCC Commissioner, notes above, private industry is the best way to secure a leadership position in 5G. This is a lesson which has been learned numerous times over the years in the US; when you leave private industry alone, simply creating a legislative and regulatory framework to encourage growth, much can be gained. In the technology world, this is perfectly evident with the success of Silicon Valley.
The dominance of the US on the technology stage is being widely challenged, though it seems the ego of the Trump party is getting in the way of logic. First to market does not necessarily mean the best, but this seems to be the angle which the President’s team is taking.
The big question is what impact this will have on the future for the Republican party. Should these rumours of a nationalised network evolve into reality, a split may well appear in the rank and file. The Republican FCC representatives are clearly not happy about this position, and neither are the science and technology advisors in the White House. However, you can’t argue that such a campaign promise would be very attractive to those who currently reside on the wrong side of the digital divide.
Here is what the Trump 2020 electoral campaign team will have to assess; is the long-term detriment of communications infrastructure a fair trade-off for the lure of ‘Middle America’ votes in the 2020 election? We suspect they won’t be looking much further beyond 2024.