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President Donald Trump speaks from the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, DC, on January 23, 2018.
The Trump administration labored to clarify on Monday that it currently has no plans to build its own ultra-fast 5G wireless network, despite publication of a memo that suggested the idea was under consideration.
At issue is a proposal put forth by an unnamed official at the National Security Council, a White House-based body that advises the president on critical U.S. and foreign policy matters. The document, first reported by Axios last night, called for the U.S. government to effectively nationalize a portion of the telecom sector — a radical departure from current policy — in a bid to combat Chinese influence.
As multiple White House officials confirmed to Recode on Sunday, the document as published is dated. They also stressed it had merely been floated by a staff member, not a reflection of some imminent, major policy announcement — and probably might never be.
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For one thing, it’s the Federal Communications Commission that serves as the government’s steward of the wireless airwaves that power 5G and myriad other uses for smartphones, tablets and similar mobile devices. And the chairman of that independent agency, Ajit Pai, said Monday that he vehemently opposed the idea of nationalizing 5G.
“I oppose any proposal for the federal government to build and operate a nationwide 5G network,” he 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.”
Instead, Pai said the U.S. government should make wireless airwaves, known as spectrum, more available for commercial carriers like AT&T and Verizon to deploy 5G networks. “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,” he said.
Otherwise, the NSC is only one component of a much larger decision-making process on the part of the federal government to set broadband policy. Its say is not final on these matters — and its memo does not appear to have gained traction with other tech-focused arms of the White House, according to multiple sources within the Trump administration.
A spokesman for the NSC, meanwhile, did not respond to an email seeking comment Monday.
Nevertheless, the unearthed memo still reflects the degree to which President Donald Trump and some of his closest aides fear the technological and political might of their Chinese counterparts. For years, Republicans in the nation’s capital have fretted over the rise of handset makers like Huawei, for example, amid concerns that the company and its peers are snooping on Americans on behalf of Beijing. Huawei’s deal with AT&T to sell its phones through the carrier had fallen through earlier this month. The reason hasn’t been made clear.