Open up


Open up

Let’s socialize wireless networks in America. Just keep Trump out of it.

The president would turn his first good idea into a xenophobic nightmare.

It’s a well established fact that Donald Trump, his cabinet, and by extension, the Republican party have almost no good ideas. In fact, the one constant in the Trump administration is the regular offerings of poorly thought out social and economic policy, hastily delivered, ill-planned, and usually in violation of some part of the U.S. constitution.

So imagine my surprise when I woke up Sunday morning to discover the Axios report of a Trump-backed plan (put together by an unnamed official at the National Security Council) to create a next generation “5G” wireless network that would blanket America with secure, super-fast wireless internet service. The massive infrastructure project would allegedly be planned and paid for by the federal government, shifting decades of private network turf wars between conglomerates such as Verizon and AT&T. In short, it would be one of the most revolutionary and shocking socialist projects ever undertaken by U.S. lawmakers.

In the document in which the plan is proposed, the author refers to the project as “the 21st-century equivalent of the Eisenhower National Highway System.” Exciting, no?

As it happens, I have long been a proponent of socializing wireless infrastructure in America. As I wrote in The Washington Post in 2011, the spotiness of service, slowness, and price gouging in monthly billing that exists at present is largely due to the monopolistic practices of a few players in the game who have been motivated by pretty much one thing only: their bottom line. With no overarching national plan, the ability to lock consumers into long-term contracts with network-specific devices, and no incentive to build into regions that aren’t densely populated, the American public has been a veritable ATM for most carriers since the inception of cell networks in the country.

This partially explains our lack of competitiveness in both coverage, speed, and interoperability as opposed to European and Asian markets, where unified, nationalized rules around network standards and business practices have created a boom in cheap, fast wireless service.

The American public has been a veritable ATM for most carriers in the U.S.

But Trump’s plan as described in the NSC document isn’t the panacea one might imagine. If a well-informed and well-intentioned U.S. government were to undertake a clear-headed strategy to bring carriers into alignment on standards, security, and best-practices, and to assist or lead in the creation of cell sites across the country, we could become a true leader in a free and open internet infrastructure. Unfortunately, this is not the kind of plan Trump’s team has in mind.

As with most of this administration’s policies, the NSC proposal is actually predicated on a fiction that walls off America from the rest of the world. Instead of taking a realistic approach to corralling current providers to work together to build a safer, larger, faster wireless infrastructure, the NSC document goes down an unsurprisingly xenophobic route — like many of Trump’s policies — pushing the idea that somehow the U.S. could become responsible for not only a new network, but new sets of standards, equipment, and presumably consumer-oriented devices that would function in a standalone environment. A move positioned to challenge the (largely) China-led rise in networking technology and systems.

A page from the National Security Council’s proposal on a nationwide 5G network.

A page from the National Security Council’s proposal on a nationwide 5G network.

Yes, the NSC proposes pushing back against a new Red Menace with a fantasy of building wireless technology and infrastructure solely in the U.S. for the U.S. — a sci-fi yarn that could only exist in the kind of “America First” fever-dream that nationalists like Steve Bannon salivate over. The NSC presentation makes the real point of this system painfully clear: if we don’t do this, the Chinese win “politically, economically, [and] militarily.”

But here’s the thing the document seems to miss, willfully or by sheer ignorance: 5G standards and the technologies that will enable its use exist already, mapped out carefully by scientists, industry experts, and yes — massive internet providers. Where a government with the size and (former?) stature of the U.S. could come into play is in its ability to regulate and enforce a thoughtful build-out and sectioning off of the spectrum that already exists. It wouldn’t be straight nationalization, but it could be a much more socialist-minded wing of our infrastructure. The government could create security measures to be adhered to by providers, design a national plan and incentives to build cell sites, and devise laws which demand that “free market” players add a socialist layer to the mix — an agreement not to monopolize spectrum, devices, or coverage areas. A breaking up of imaginary barriers to access and an introduction of a consistent baseline would be a real revolution: fast internet for everyone, with commercial players building desirable portfolios on something more consumer-friendly than just scarcity.

But unsurprisingly, the Trump plan is concerned more with what it can keep out of our networks than the good it could do in opening them up. And in planning along nationalistic, defensive lines, Trump does what he always does: builds a xenophobic delusion that can’t survive in the atmosphere of reality.

The Trump administration has tried to distance itself from some of the details outlined in the document. On Monday, press secretary Sarah Sanders stated that “There are absolutely no decisions made on what that would look like, what role anyone would play in it... simply the need for a secure network.” While that isn’t exactly an outright denial that Trump’s team is putting together a plan, it at least suggests there may be a long road ahead before a real strategy takes shape.

The unfortunate truth is that in the hands of a responsible, sane government, a nationalized system of next-generation wireless networks would be an incredible boon to the economy and a huge advantage to the citizenry of the nation. But in the hands of the unqualified buffoons currently in the White House, it looks like a lot of other U.S. policy right now: overly simplistic, a little bit racist... and dead on arrival.