In a controversial and perhaps unprecedented move, President Donald Trump’s re-election team is backing a plan to give the government a role in managing the US’ next generation 5G networks, striking fear through the communications industry of nationalisation and the potentially harsh regulatory environment it could create.
The plan would see the US government designing a system that would enable the sharing of 5G airwaves on a wholesale basis with wireless providers. Heavily criticised by industry, the Trump campaign seeks to win the hearts of rural voters who have long suffered from a lack of decent internet because wireless network operators have no financial incentive to roll out affordable broadband to citizens outside the major American cities.
Of course, a national 5G network would be something never seen before: for the first time, the government would be taking control of a previously private arena. Already, FCC Chairman and Trump appointee Ajit Pai has rejected the idea of nationalising 5G, saying the market should always control the industry and not the government. Of course, Paj was firmly against Net Neutrality; his view on 5G is concurrent with his pro-business stance – a stance that most would have assumed was shared by Trump himself.
If you’re wondering why the Trump administration seems to be on the side of the public rather than industry, a quick look at his motivation behind the proposals will tell you everything you need to know. Social good may be a by-product, but the proposal is a national cybersecurity measure – one that aims to counter legitimate Chinese online threats and stave off stiff competition from Chinese economic rivals like Huawei.
So, what’s the problem?
For many American citizens, the problem is the approach. The internet shouldn’t be a means to make money but a global infrastructure that connects people and facilitates communication in order to improve our standard of living. In the eyes of telecoms providers, creating a centralised 5G network could be detrimental to the development of new technologies that are of acute interest to industry.
Speaking at the Mobile World Congress 2019, Telefonica CEO Jose Maria Alvarez-Pallete Lopez insisted that a new approach was needed for the successful implementation of 5G and the spectrum around it. According to Lopez, governments see telecommunications as a “cash cow”; they view it as a means of making money by forcing operators to repeatedly apply — and pay — to use spectrums.
“The aim of regulators should be to reduce regulation,” Lopez told the audience, arguing that governments must open up processes to allow 5G and other connected technologies to thrive and for the complete benefit to be felt by citizens in urban areas and beyond.
After all, 5G is not merely a faster version of 4G, it is the catalyst to a new generation of wireless communications and the key to unlocking the full potential of IoT devices. A fundamental shift in telecommunications networks, 5G promises a new era of productivity and innovation. By 2024, it’s estimated that 5G will reach 1.5 billion people across the world.
By 2030, as many as 125 billion IoT sensors and devices in our homes, cars, offices and streets will be networked together, connecting people in a way previously unimaginable. If 4G was the spark that ignited the “always on” society we know today, the emergence and implementation of 5G is the final piece in the connectivity puzzle: once in place, our daily lives will be transformed once more.
In order for it to fulfil its full potential, however, the ongoing battle between mobile network operators and policy-makers must reach a reasonable conclusion – one that enables rather than thwarts the roll-out of 5G technology. Overall, the move to 5G will be impossible without strategic leadership from government; regulation is a necessity that should bring about more transparency from wireless network operators with regard to their products, services and price plans.
A good example of this can be seen with data roaming charges. Prior to regulation by the EU, telecoms providers were charging customers a significant amount for data roaming in Europe. This fast became a pain point for customers and yet an issue that telecoms providers failed to address early enough. Fortunately, legislation now ensures that vendors allow customers to use their data no matter where they are on the continent – had the regulator not stepped in, it’s hard to say at what point providers would have taken action to improve their service and access to data.
Nevertheless, it’s true that too much red tape could create a restrictive environment; if policy-makers try to overcharge for spectrum use or impose strict regulations, change will be slow and development fragmented. According to Vodafone chief executive Vittorio Colao, there exists a real opportunity for 5G to “reduce environmental impacts and boost European rates productivity”. But the CEO further warned of the impact that government greed could have on innovation, stating the need for what he called a longer-term view of what the technology can do rather than seeking quick wins to squeeze money from telcos.
Yet, one thing is for sure: the move to 5G will not be possible without the collaboration and cooperation between industry, government, leading researchers and tech companies.