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Nationalization question hangs over White House’s 5G announcement

Chairman of the United States Federal Communications Commission (FCC), Ajit Pai, gives a speech during a conference at the Mobile World Congress (MWC) held in Barcelona, northeastern Spain, Feb. 28, 2017. (Andreu Dalmau/EFE/Zuma Press/TNS)

Announcing the latest phase of his plan to implement a fifth-generation broadband network throughout the United States, Federal Communications Commission Chairman Ajit Pai last Friday reiterated his agency’s stance that a free-market approach to implementation is the key to beating China in “the race to 5G.”

Nationalizing 5G and selling spectrum access wholesale, as some have proposed — including President Donald Trump’s re-election campaign manager — is “the wrong answer for American consumers at the end of the day,” Pai told reporters on a conference call.

“The lesson of 4G is that ultimately Americans benefited from the free-market approach,” he said.

Pai was announcing the latest set of 5G broadband spectrum auctions, set to be held in December, as well as a $20 billion fund designed to bring 5G to rural America over the next decade.

At an event at the White House on Friday afternoon, Trump affirmed the free-market approach. “Our approach is private-sector driven and private-sector led,” he said. “The government doesn’t have to spend lots of money.”

Pai’s insistence on a free-market approach is notable because White House staffers and wireless industry advocates were caught off guard last month when Kayleigh McEnany, press secretary for Trump’s re-election campaign, told Politico that “a 5G wholesale market would drive down costs and provide access to millions of Americans who are currently underserved.”

The campaign later clarified that views held by Brad Parscale, the campaign’s manager and a public supporter of nationalized 5G, were personal and did not reflect the position of the campaign or the White House. “There is no daylight between the White House and the campaign,” McEnany said.

That ordeal came after Axios reported in January on a leaked National Security Council proposal highlighting the potential benefits of a nationalized 5G network.

The incidents spooked lawmakers from both parties who believe that nationalizing 5G would hamper innovation and keep the technology from becoming ubiquitous in American life. The Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee earlier this month approved bipartisan legislation by Texas Republican Sen. Ted Cruz and Democratic Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto, of Nevada, that would block the government from taking a wholesale approach.

Cruz has previously said he considers the legislation necessary because even though the administration sought to clarify its position on nationalized 5G, it had not buried the proposal “in the graveyard of bad ideas.”

Bipartisan companion legislation has been introduced in the House by Reps. Indiana Republican Susan W. Brooks and California Democrat Tony Cardenas.


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