Lawmakers aren’t exactly sure what’s caused the Trump administration plan for a greater government role in the build-out of 5G wireless infrastructure to rise from its grave over the last month. But they’re moving quickly to kill the proposal—and make sure that this time, it stays dead.
On Wednesday, the Senate Commerce Committee unanimously passed a bill prohibiting the White House or any federal agency from “constructing, operating, or offering wholesale or retail services on broadband networks without authorization from Congress.” Spearheaded by Sens. Ted Cruz and Catherine Cortez Masto, the bill was reintroduced just last week after going nowhere the previous Congress. A companion House bill to Cruz’s legislation was also introduced on Wednesday, with bipartisan backing.
Cruz’s bill is one of two separate pieces of legislation moving quickly through the Senate with the aim of halting any further plans to “nationalize” America’s burgeoning 5G infrastructure, the next-generation wireless technology promising to supercharge download speeds and transform dozens of industries.
Another bill, sponsored by the chairman and ranking member of the Senate Intelligence Committee along with several other committee Republicans, was first introduced last Thursday. And though it takes a slightly gentler stance than Cruz’s bill, Sen. John Cornyn has already said he hopes to wrap the legislation into the must-pass National Defense Authorization Act.
The sudden rush from a largely Republican bloc of lawmakers to shut down potential White House plans to inject the federal government into the ongoing 5G build-out is driven largely by the proposal’s recent, and unexpected, revival.
“While the administration initially stated that the proposal was eliminated, it has failed to be placed in the graveyard of bad ideas,” Cruz said at Wednesday’s markup. “In fact, in the 14 months since it was initially leaked, it has only continued to gain public support from individuals with close ties to the administration.”
Most observers say they believed the plan had been permanently discarded last year, after a leaked memo from the National Security Council calling for the government to construct and pay for a single, nationwide wireless network to counter Chinese efforts was roundly pilloried by policy experts. But another proposal backed by Trump campaign officials, a little-known wireless company named Rivada, and—according to Cruz—multiple unnamed government officials has surfaced in recent months.
The new plan calls for the federal government to create a country-spanning “wholesale” 5G network by allocating a significant portion of government-held wireless spectrum to one private company. That single firm would then distribute bandwidth to wireless providers and other potential buyers.
It’s not clear that the proposal represents a Venezuela-style nationalization of the U.S. 5G marketplace, as some suggest. But it’s a dramatic departure from the exclusive spectrum rights wireless carriers have purchased for decades via auction from the federal government.
“Everyone was surprised to see it come back to life,” James Lewis, a senior vice president at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said of the new plan to “nationalize” 5G. “It’s kind of like Dracula, you know? [The Senate effort] is driving the wooden stake through its heart.”
The plan for a wholesale network is backed most vocally by Trump campaign officials—particularly Trump 2020 campaign manager Brad Parscale, who has framed the issue as a way to lock up support in rural America by promising increased access to next-generation broadband technology. Parscale did not respond to a request for comment.
Other key backers include Republican heavyweights like Karl Rove and Newt Gingrich, as well as some progressives—Kevin Werbach, a former telecommunications adviser to President Obama, wrote an op-ed supporting the plan last month.
Then there’s Rivada, the wireless company seeking to position itself at the center of the new scheme. Brian Carney, the company’s senior vice president, vociferously denied that the wholesale plan has anything to do with nationalization. “Even calling it greater government control over 5G networks is probably a misrepresentation,” Carney told National Journal, characterizing the plan as a privately run alternative to the current model dominated by the major wireless carriers.
Carney said senators worried about a federal 5G takeover “are falling victim to—for lack of a better word—a propaganda campaign from the carriers that has mischaracterized ... what the administration and Trump officials have called for support of.”
While clearly supportive of congressional efforts, representatives from AT&T and USTelecom declined to say whether they viewed Rivada’s plan as an effort to “nationalize” the industry. CTIA, the wireless industry's trade association, pointed to its statement from last week calling the plan a “nationalized ‘wholesale’ network monopoly.”
But the most mysterious backers of the 5G wholesale plan are those within the administration itself. Carney said Rivada has had no contact with the campaign, suggesting the company's talks have been with administration officials. Carney also wouldn’t say whether Rove—an investor in Rivada and adviser to its CEO—has acted as a liaison with the White House. “Karl knows everybody and has a lot of conversations,” he said.
“The Trump administration is supportive of a private-sector, free-enterprise approach,” a White House official told National Journal in response to Wednesday’s Senate markup. “We believe the U.S. is winning the race to 5G with record deployments in cities across the United States.”
Some Republicans—particularly those signed onto the Senate Intelligence Committee’s bill—don’t believe the White House is serious about reviving the 5G-nationalization issue. “I don’t think they are,” said Sen. Richard Burr, the committee’s chairman. “But I think we’re forcing our opinion about what it should look like.”
Still, not everyone is convinced the idea remains on the back burner. On Monday, Cruz told reporters that he’s “heard multiple voices within the government expressing openness to that idea.” On Wednesday, the Texas Republican declined to say who those officials are.
“Rather than focus on any individuals in particular, what this legislation focuses on is the policy,” Cruz told National Journal. “And it’s critical that America win the race to 5G, and that we beat China. And the best way to do so is empowering the private sector to continue America’s worldwide leadership in broadband.”