The government wants to build its own national 5G network, but small businesses and wireless-industry groups say doing so will slow the commercial rollout of the high-speed network--imperiling the supposed benefits of the tech

The Small Business & Entrepreneurship Council (SBE Council), a small-business advocacy group based in Vienna, Virginia, last week joined telecom-industry groups including the Wireless Association, the Rural Broadband Association, and the Internet & Television Association in their opposition to what they're calling the nationalization of 5G networks. Specifically, the groups oppose the Department of Defense's attempt to create a new 5G military cellular network and lease its excess spectrum directly.

Traditionally, the Federal Communications Commission has been tasked with licensing airwaves to companies. The agency was reportedly planning to auction some of the military-owned spectrum late next year.

The move is seen as an encroachment on the private-sector development of the nation's technology infrastructure and threatens to undermine the speed of progress, the groups state. "Entrepreneurs know that federal government management of 5G will lead to slower rollout, less innovation, higher costs, and poor quality networks," SBE Council president and CEO Karen Kerrigan said in a statement.

The DoD-owned spectrum--that is, invisible radio frequencies that are used to transmit wireless signals--in question is currently used by the military for radar and aviation. The private sector had hoped to access the spectrum, which is so massive it's considered ideal for sending the 5G communications that telecom companies are now cultivating across the nation. 

According to The Wall Street Journal, the Pentagon is drafting a request for proposal for a new cellular network that would lease its extra capacity to private-sector users like cellphone carriers, automakers, and factories. According to a press release from earlier this month, the DoD is interested in integrating 5G into its military operations to "strengthen our nation's warfighting capabilities as well as U.S. economic competitiveness in this critical field."

Republican lawmakers have also noted their opposition to the DoD spectrum plan. On September 30, Senator John Thune (R-SD) and roughly 20 other GOP members of Congress sent a letter to President Trump expressing concern about the DoD's plan, noting that it stands in opposition to free-market principles. "Nationalizing 5G and experimenting with untested models for 5G deployment is not the way the United States will win the 5G race," the senators wrote.

In its own letter, the SBE Council noted the scope of what's at stake. The move, the group said, could slow the adoption of the technology, put the U.S. at a disadvantage to other countries--namely, China--and undermine the $2 trillion of private-sector investment in network infrastructure. Telecom companies including AT&T and Verizon Communications have spent billions amassing cellular licenses in anticipation of rolling out 5G.

Of course, if the DoD action means more Americans in more remote areas will get access to the high-speed networks, that carries an obvious benefit for businesses in those locations. It could enable things like advanced health care, high-quality and low-cost education, constantly modulated energy use, and the ability to work where you live, among many other benefits that are even more acute during the pandemic. As Susan Crawford, an author and a professor at Harvard Law School, writes for Wired, both urban and rural areas in most of America are suffering from a "digital divide," because high-capacity communications will only be provided where there is both demand and a high-margin business case.