President Donald Trump on Thursday instructed the federal government to speed up America’s investment in high-speed wireless data networks by developing a national strategy to funnel unused airwaves to the private sector.
The presidential memorandum calls on federal agencies to assess which chunks of wireless airwaves, or spectrum, federal officials will need in the coming years to fulfill their missions, with an eye toward sharing the rest with cellphone carriers, technology companies and other emerging industries.
The announcement escalates the Trump administration’s rivalry with China, whose own telecommunications companies have been investing heavily in advanced wireless technology. And it comes as carriers such as AT&T and Verizon are racing to debut the first consumer versions of 5G – a successor to the 4G LTE that connects many smartphones to the internet – promising download speeds faster than the broadband many Americans use at home.
“The wireless industry contributes roughly $475 billion to the U.S. economy each year and supports nearly 4.7 million American jobs,” said Michael Kratsios, deputy U.S. chief technology officer. “The coming 5G networks will bring enormous benefits to our economy.” Making more airwaves available to the private sector, he said, could bolster the sector and accelerate the rise of new products such as virtual reality and telemedicine, as well as give new capabilities to the nation’s military.
The White House is expected to issue a report on such technologies and their need for wireless spectrum. The national spectrum strategy will be issued by next summer.
The announcement comes a month after the Trump administration invited businesses and policymakers to the White House to discuss ways to accelerate the spread of 5G.
Thursday’s initiative puts further distance between Trump and a proposal by some of his national security staff, earlier this year, to build a government-run 5G network across the country. The idea was quickly buried amid criticism from the telecom industry, and even the Federal Communications Commission, as un-American.
Still, in some parts of Washington, what motivated the national security proposal remains, and that is a fear that Chinese-built networking equipment, when integrated into a U.S. 5G system, could be covertly used against Americans as spying devices. In August, Trump banned federal agencies from using technology from two Chinese manufacturers, Huawei and ZTE. And the FCC has considered barring U.S. telecom carriers from using Chinese equipment in their networks, too.
In addition, policymakers worry that China’s plan to spend more than $400 billion by 2030 on building a 5G network could set the stage for a generation of Chinese dominance in apps, services and devices – much as Apple, Google and other U.S.-based companies took advantage of an early American lead in 4G mobile data technology.
Thursday’s spectrum memorandum does not address China from a national security perspective, White House officials said. But in highlighting the role of private industry in the strategic plan, they sought to philosophically distance themselves from China’s state-operated telecom businesses as it seeks to lock in a head start on new wireless technology.
“This is the American way, and in a global race with the Chinese, we very much stand behind American entrepreneurs to get there first,” said a White House official, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss internal administration thinking.
This is not the first time White House officials have sought to repurpose federal airwaves. In 2010, President Barack Obama called for the U.S. government to free up 500 megahertz of public spectrum for commercial use; three years later, he signed another memorandum expanding that directive.
But Trump’s memo scraps Obama’s initiatives and replaces them with his own.
“While those served important purposes at the time, we’re taking a forward look,” said another White House official, citing changes in technology and speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss the administration’s internal deliberations. The new direction will still preserve Obama’s focus on research and development of new spectrum-sharing technologies that allow for multiple users of the same airwaves, the official said.