America's race to 5G: Government is not the answer

All of America is expectantly waiting for the long promised 5G networks to upgrade our communications systems. We are incredibly dependent on our devices, as individuals and as entities; so it’s easy to understand why people are excited for this next-generation network. What is the fastest and most effective way to achieve 5G accessibility across the nation?  Bluntly, it is not “Have the government do it.”

It is not exactly like the big (and small) telecoms are dragging their feet. In fact, quite the opposite. They are racing each other to get strong and reliable 5G service built across the U.S.

But since it is not here yet, some are suggesting that letting the Federal government do it is the way to get it done fast, affordably and “democratically.”  This is entirely wrong-headed thinking. Building a “government-owned, carrier-neutral, wholesale-only, nationwide network” is doomed to fail for three reasons: lack of speed, no experience and major threats to security.

As mentioned, most of the telecoms are working overtime to get there now. Suddenly putting on the brakes will not speed things up. Attempting to nationalize 5G will only delay the companies about to reach deployment.

Why would a commercial entity continue their effort if they know the government is about to begin a complete takeover? So, essentially, efforts to nationalize would kill the commercial side.

Next, there is little chance a new entity (the government) could build a “nationwide network” in 2-3 years. Frankly, it is doubtful that the federal government could define what it is they want in that much time.  The legislative, regulatory, and design capabilities are glacial in nature, and the feds have no experience in developing such a system. They have never done it before, and it is doubtful they could do it at all; they darned sure could not do it that fast.

Then there is their lack of experience. U.S. wireless companies have already spent years driving toward 5G. They have skilled engineering teams and experienced workforces ready to deploy it. Government would be starting from scratch.

Given that the Feds cannot hire enough tech workers for essential things like cyber security, why would anyone expect they could suddenly hire away the thousands of engineers and telecom workers that will be needed to construct a 5G network. Neither the government nor any startup is a “neutral” operator, and either has little experience running a large-scale network. Creating a new agency to oversee this effort, or to dump such a Herculean task on an existing agency is dooming the effort to years of startup woes that will do anything but speed up the process. It is a fool’s errand.

Lastly, a single national network is more vulnerable to cyber attacks than a diversified one. The diversity of our present networks is a boon to security. At present, an enemy that penetrates one network does not have access to all of them. But if you rely on one network, centrally controlled, you are upping the vulnerabilities tremendously.  Particularly if that single network is all brand new, and built to the “lowest bidder” requirements of a government organization with no background in this area.

America is under tremendous pressure from a multitude of enemies (Russia, China, Iran, North Korea, organized crime) in the cyber world. We cannot afford to make their jobs any easier.

It is always amazing that when things get tight, someone always suggests we bump it up to the federal government. The folks who work in this arena are marvelous patriots (I lived this life for nearly 35 years), who can do lots of phenomenal things. That said, they are not replacements for the commercial workforce in a specific sector, like wireless telecom. The feds never work fast, never work at low cost, and never offer the innovative spirit one finds in the commercial sector.


If one thinks we need 5G, nationwide at a faster rate, we need to assist the commercial wireless world in getting there. That means remove regulations, add motivation, and above all else, keep the government out of the way. A government effort to achieve a nationwide 5G network in 2-3 years is a fantasy, and a dangerous one at that.

Steven Bucci, who served America for three decades as an Army Special Forces officer and top Pentagon official, is a visiting research fellow at The Heritage Foundation.