Illustration by Daren Lin
President Donald Trump says he wants America to win the race to the fast new wireless future. He took it seriously enough to sign a presidential memorandum setting a deadline of July 2019 for a new national strategy on allocating the airwaves. That deadline came and went with no strategy in sight.
In September, a Commerce Department undersecretary promised that the strategy was still on the way, telling a gathering of government officials that it would be released in the fall. A Commerce official assured POLITICO that the department did indeed deliver a draft to the White House. As of this writing, no strategy has been released.
In the void, Trump administration officials have been lobbying their own ideas for how America can win the race to build superfast 5G service — seemingly with no coordination at all. Economic adviser Larry Kudlow talked up a new “virtualized” network to counter Chinese hardware dominance. Attorney General William Barr suggested that instead the U.S. should buy a controlling stake in one of Huawei’s European competitors. The idea was unprecedented — and apparently unsupported: A day later, Vice President Mike Pence seemed to walk it back.
Democrats in Congress haven’t missed the chance to pounce on the White House’s disarray on such a fundamental new technology. Sen. Brian Schatz of Hawaii, the top Democrat on the Commerce Committee’s telecommunications subcommittee, called the White House’s 5G planning “haphazard in the extreme.”
It’s not just the White House, though: If the strategy is ever finalized, Washington is poised for even more confusion, and the reason dates back long before Trump. As China pushes aggressively ahead, with its leading firm, Huawei, a clear national favorite with strong support from the central party, American wireless-communications policy is overseen by an astonishing tangle of agencies—including the Federal Communications Commission, Department of Commerce, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. All have overlapping interests and bureaucratic turf to protect. And most notably, the agency most closely charged with overseeing 5G—the National Telecommunications and Information Administration—hasn’t had a leader for months, with no director even nominated.
Washington already has a long to-do list where 5G is concerned. Telecom companies are craving more space on the nation’s airwaves to help build a new and faster network; its promised speeds, up to 100 times faster than what consumers currently get, are possible only with swaths of new bandwidth that government agencies need to free up. They also require FCC and Commerce Department consensus on the standards for how they’re allowed to use 5G airwaves, which has spurred fighting over possible interference with weather forecasting.
Much of that is regulated by the Commerce Department, which has had very high turnover. Nowhere is the problem more acute than the National Telecommunications and Information Administration, an agency created inside the Commerce Department in 1978 to take the lead on allocating wireless airwaves for government use. Along with the Federal Communications Commission, it determines which public and private entities have the right to use which parts of the wireless spectrum.
Last May, the agency’s chief abruptly resigned after a year and a half on the job, and his acting successor resigned after just a few months. The administration has never announced plans to nominate a permanent leader in the nine months since. With less than a year left before the November presidential election, it’s likely the agency will stay headless indefinitely, subject to leadership from officials on an acting basis. And even then, the latest acting chief left in December.
One rumored source of conflict has long been Earl Comstock, a high-ranking deputy to Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross who has tried to assert control over the agency. Rep. Greg Walden of Oregon, the top Republican on the powerful House Energy and Commerce Committee, told POLITICO last year he would discourage any candidate from taking the NTIA administrator role due to concerns about department officials intruding on the agency’s turf. “I’d want to know who is really running the show,” said Walden, who formerly employed the last NTIA leader as chief counsel on the panel. “It’s a question of, are you the NTIA? Or is somebody else running the show?”
The instability has spelled trouble for the Commerce Department’s relationship with the FCC, which unlike the NTIA is an independent agency. Although NTIA manages government-held airwaves and the FCC commercial spectrum, the two frequently have to collaborate to help develop U.S. policy on 5G standards.
Despite the turmoil, there have been some baby steps. Commerce Department and FCC officials seemed to settle some differences in August over 5G standards to safeguard weather forecasting ahead of a global telecom conference.
But doubts still run high on Capitol Hill among some Democrats and Republicans over the terms of the deal and whether administration officials are on the same page. In the past year, the FCC alone has gotten into airwave spats with the departments of Education, Energy, Commerce and Transportation, typically over what airwaves the FCC can free up for the commercial wireless titans it regulates. The Commerce Department’s NTIA is supposed to be the agency managing these disputes, but some agencies have bypassed it entirely to take grievances directly to the FCC.
Over the week of Christmas, Trump did make a move to impose some leadership in global 5G policy, assigning 5G coordination duties to Robert Blair, a White House staffer serving as top security adviser to acting chief of staff Mick Mulvaney. That made waves for other reasons: Blair had recently defied an impeachment subpoena from the House of Representatives to testify about his role in halting military aid to Ukraine.
Sen. Mark Warner of Virginia, the top Democrat on the Intelligence Committee, told POLITICO that despite having heard “favorable comments that [Blair] is a competent guy,” he finds the choice surprising. The stakes are high, and U.S. dominance in 5G is necessary to counter the rising threat of China and its titanic firms such as Huawei. Trump has been lobbying allied countries to spurn using Huawei equipment in their 5G networks.
“Why would you put somebody that’s in the middle of not [just] one controversy into this position?” Warner asked. “If the West can’t offer an alternative, and every month that we don’t have a plan, these are decisions countries are going to make.”
When it comes to 5G, concern over the chaos has become one of the rare points of bipartisan agreement in Congress. In December, Republicans and Democrats on the House Science Committee asked the Government Accountability Office to step in and disentangle the “contradictory statements” from the FCC, NOAA, and NASA on 5G airwave safeguards. The lawmakers wrote about “apparent lack of coordination” among the various agencies on 5G.
Then in January, Walden, the Oregon Republican, joined with House Energy and Commerce Chairman Frank Pallone (D-N.J.) to ask the GAO to probe these same issues and others, including agencies sidestepping their traditional deference to Commerce Department processes on wireless spectrum fights.
At a time when the United States is under significant pressure to develop new 5G technology and roll it out on wireless spectrum, Walden and Pallone found “inefficient management and chaotic processes.”
“Last year,” they concluded, “it was clear that the federal spectrum management process broke down.”
Despite these anxieties, the Trump administration has maintained the U.S. is barreling ahead on 5G deployment and has stability, such as the same FCC chair for the duration of Trump’s first term, administration conveners like Larry Kudlow and a Senate-confirmed chief technology officer, who has repeatedly pointed to 5G supremacy as an administration technology goal.
Trump, in his budget proposal for the coming fiscal year released this February, even proposed boosting funding for NTIA by tens of millions of dollars, an increase of roughly 80 percent and largely aimed at 5G. And the president himself is projecting optimism despite the concerns of Democrats, the industry and even his own party.
“Spectrum, we’re opening it up,” Trump said in January at the World Economic Forum meeting in Davos, Switzerland. “We’re in very good shape. I think we’re far advanced, much further than people understand. We got off to a very late start before I got here. But once I got here, we’ve really caught up.”