Yesterday, Axios published a leaked memo prepared by a “senior National Security Council official” proposing that the U.S. should “conduct a moonshot with secure 5G deployment,” i.e., building a government-run 5G network within three years — calling it the “Eisenhower National Highway System for the Information Age.” The memo argues the U.S. needs to “flip the script” to beat the Chinese, which it claims are leading the manufacturing of 5G components. White House officials say the memo is ‘dated’ and that it has no such plans.

TrumpNet would be the worst idea in the history of the Internet,” said TechFreedom President Berin Szóka. “What’s made the Internet great isn’t ‘moonshots’ or ‘inspired leadership’ from Washington — it’s private companies experimenting with multiple technologies, competing with each other to win over customers markets that don’t yet exist, and investing more capital than any other sector of the economy by leaps and bounds. Nearly a third of the $1.6+ trillion in private capital spent building out the physical infrastructure of the Internet has been spent on wireless networks. That dynamism has made us the world leader in 4G deployment. We won’t stay on top by throwing away our playbook and stealing China’s.”

The White House’s denial notwithstanding, this proposal does reflect Trump’s grandiose rhetoric and the Boomers’ obsession with the Manhattan and Apollo projects,” warned Szóka. “Peter Thiel’s GOP convention speech expressed widespread yearning for an imagined past when bold leadership ‘made America great’ through the exercise of sheer political will — the nostalgia Trump’s campaign tapped into at every opportunity. That top-down approach may work for science projects like smashing the atom or ‘putting a man on the Moon’ but not for the Internet. There’s no one, clear path to 5G because 5G isn’t a single technology; there isn’t even a standard yet. No one person knows how best to get from here to there — whatever ‘there’ actually turns out to be. TrumpNet would be France’s 1970s Minitel all over again: a top-down nationalist vanity project made obsolete by a rapidly changing world.”

John Oliver has convinced millions of Americans that Ajit Pai is trying to kill the Internet, but it’s Pai actually who’s standing up for Internet freedom,” lamented Szóka. “Pai and his fellow Republican Commissioners should be applauded for condemning this inane proposal immediately. Where Pai’s Democratic predecessor kowtowed to the political diktats of the White House, Pai hasn’t hesitated to assert the FCC’s independence. While Democrats have insisted that broadband should be a public utility, Pai has already rolled back the broad claims of legal authority over broadband made by the Obama-era FCC — powers that would ease implementation of a federally controlled TrumpNet..And make no mistake: ‘secure’ network proposed by the National Security Council would inevitably be one the U.S. government could more easily surveil and control.”

The proposal does raise one valid and urgent concern: negotiating with each of America’s 89,000 local governments over the installation of 5G infrastructure will slow deployment considerably,” continued Szóka. “Local bureaucracy has already made deployment of America’s ~300,000 macro cell towers painfully slow. 5G networks will require millions of small cell antennas. We do need a coordinated national approach to small cell deployment, just as Congress once preempted local zoning rules that would have held up installation of satellite dishes. But we don’t need a government-run network to do that. Congress needs to update the FCC’s powers to preempt state and local barriers to broadband deployment, most notably to ensure that they apply to rights of way and poles owned by governments just as they do to those owned by private companies.”


See our other work on broadband deployment, including:

  • Berin’s Washington Post op-ed, “How net-neutrality advocates would let Trump control the Internet”
  • Berin’s Wired op-ed, “Don’t Blame Big Cable, It’s Local Governments that Choke Broadband Competition”