Hey, we might need that wall … to stop Mexico’s state-run 5G network

The Trump administration’s infrastructure plan brings Republicans and Democrats together. This flash of bipartisanship establishes something of a streak. The administration’s infrastructure proposal for a government-designed wireless network, leaked from the White House two weeks ago, was quickly denounced by those on both sides of the aisle.

But the mobile technology gambit deserves a bit more explanation. The idea floated was considerably worse than commonly understood.

To promote the coming wave of ultra-fast 5G (fifth-generation) technology and to counter Chinese rivals, the plan contends the government should seize the “commanding heights” of the mobile market by setting aside airwaves for a state-managed carrier. This operator, the report argued, would support U.S. innovation, expand U.S. consumer choice and improve American cybersecurity.

The means to these admirable ends were dubious and dangerous. A contemplated pivot away from market competition — the product of a longstanding consensus that dispatched the old, staid Ma Bell monopoly with an array of robust networks, devices and mobile app ecosystems — reached back into the dustbin of history, reprising methods that long stymied progress. And it undercut claims that Washington seeks to avoid micromanagement of the economy.

The 5G proposal, presented by Gen. Robert Spalding, then with the National Security Council, created two of the year’s greatest ironies not involving a tweet or the Dow Jones Index. First, not only did the clumsy anti-market idea emerge within a boastfully pro-market administration, but its “commanding heights” caption was lifted from the Marxist bravado of V.I. Lenin.

Second, the Trump administration, so happy to attack imports from South of the border, failed to note (or, perhaps, even realize) that it was marketing a public policy languishing in Mexico.

For five years, Mexican regulators have withheld a huge chunk of radio spectrum (90 MHz) from private carriers, reserving it for a state-crafted wholesale wireless network. The state’s creation — “Red Compartida” — was intended, policymakers said, to bring coverage to unserved areas and competition to the dominant mobile operator in Mexico, TelCel, which is owned by Carlos Slim, one of the world’s wealthiest people. Regulators mandate that Red Compartida — which the government calls “the biggest telecommunications project in the history of Mexico” — must be a “wholesale network” offering a platform to which providers might enjoy “open access.”

Alas, the venture so far has failed to bring broadband access to anyone, open or otherwise. The biggest winner of the government’s network plan? Carlos Slim.

The new platform has been crippled by political delays and red tape. The company the government hired to build the network has claimed a great success, however, by announcing that it will soon offer service to some 30 percent of the country’s population. It hopes to achieve that milestone in a resale deal with TelCel, which provides the actual service.

Read more of this The Hill op-ed by Thomas W. Hazlett and Scott Wallsten by clicking here.

Photo: Getty Images