The Trump administration labored to explain Monday that it currently has no plans to build its own ultra-fast 5G wireless network, despite the publication of a memo that had suggested the idea was under consideration.
At issue is a proposal put forth by the National Security Council, a White House-based body that advises the president on critical U.S. and foreign policy matters. The document, first reported by Axios last night, called for the U.S. government to effectively nationalize a portion of the telecom sector — a radical departure from current policy — in a bid to combat Chinese influence and potential security threats.
As multiple White House officials confirmed to Recode on Sunday, the document has since been updated and no decision is final. Three sources with knowledge of the matter later told Recode that they believe the author is an NSC staff member, Brigadier Gen. Robert S. Spalding III, a Mandarin-fluent former strategist on China to the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
A spokesman for the National Security Council declined to comment.
Nevertheless, some White House sources quickly told Recode that the memo was not evidence of an imminent, major policy announcement — and probably might never be.
Then came formal opposition from the Federal Communications Commission, which serves as the government’s steward of the wireless airwaves that power 5G and myriad other uses for smartphones, tablets and similar mobile devices.
“I oppose any proposal for the federal government to build and operate a nationwide 5G network,” said FCC Chairman Ajit Pai in a statement. “The main lesson to draw from the wireless sector’s development over the past three decades — including American leadership in 4G — is that the market, not government, is best positioned to drive innovation and investment.”
Meanwhile, the White House sought to emphasize that it had made no decision. “Right now we’re in the very earliest stages of the conversation,” said press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders. “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.”
And the NSC’s own spokesman echoed the White House’s formal lack of commitment. “The President’s National Security Strategy made it clear that secure 5G internet capability nationwide is critical,” it said in a statement. “While in very early stages of the deliberative process, all options are under consideration and we are firmly committed to working with the American telecom and technical sectors to support a solution.”
The NSC is only one component of a much larger decision-making process on the part of the federal government to set broadband policy. Its say is not final on these matters — and its memo does not appear to have gained traction with other tech-focused arms of the White House, according to multiple sources within the Trump administration.
That includes elements of the U.S. government like the National Economic Council, or NEC, which has labored on elements of a multibillion dollar infrastructure reform bill that could touch on broadband — and wireless internet access through technologies like 5G.
Otherwise, the FCC could set aside wireless spectrum for other uses, or the Trump administration could ask Congress to commit to nationalizing 5G.
Republicans at the telecom agency and on Capitol Hill each expressed dissatisfaction with that idea. Pai, for one, stressed that commercial carriers like AT&T and Verizon should deploy 5G networks. “Any federal effort to construct a nationalized 5G network would be a costly and counterproductive distraction from the policies we need to help the United States win the 5G future,” he said.
Rep. Greg Walden, the GOP leader of the telecom-focused House Energy and Commerce Committee, offered a similar take. “We’re not Venezuela. We don’t need to have the government run everything as the only choice,” he said at a conference in Washington, D.C., on Monday.
If anything, the unearthed memo at least reflects the degree to which President Donald Trump and some of his closest aides fear the technological and political might of their Chinese counterparts.
For years, Republicans in the nation’s capital have fretted over the rise of handset makers like Huawei, for example, amid concerns that the company and its peers are snooping on Americans on behalf of Beijing. Huawei’s deal with AT&T to sell its phones through the carrier had fallen through earlier this month.
This article originally appeared on Recode.net.