Pentagon Opens Door to 5G Network Shared With Civilian Cellphones
By Drew FitzGerald
U.S. officials are exploring concepts for a new 5G wireless
network that would let Silicon Valley giants and other businesses
tap valuable Pentagon airwaves, setting up a potential clash over
how to deploy the next-generation technology.
The Department of Defense issued a request for information
Friday that could open the door for investors to bid on contracts
to build a domestic cellular network for both the military and for
commercial operators. That dual-use structure would allow companies
to link connected cars, factories and hospitals over ultrafast
fifth-generation signals without bidding for the licenses at
The proposal would keep the Pentagon in control of the airwaves,
which are used for radar and other military hardware. Most
cellphone signals today travel over frequencies that carriers like
Verizon Communications Inc. and AT&T Inc. spend billions of
dollars to reserve.
The U.S. wireless market has been dominated by three providers
since T-Mobile US Inc.'s takeover of Sprint earlier this year. All
three companies have started rolling out 5G services by upgrading
their existing networks, expecting to sell ultrafast connections
for their smartphone customers.
But several technology giants have sought toeholds in wireless
communications on their own. Google owner Alphabet Inc. has been an
active advocate of sharing wireless spectrum. Some Google
executives discussed the Pentagon proposal in meetings with
government officials earlier this year, according to people
familiar with the talks.
It is unclear whether Google would participate in a potential
Pentagon project or is simply advocating a policy that could lower
the market price of internet data on the go, which would benefit
its advertising and cloud-computing businesses. A Google
spokeswoman declined to comment on the meetings.
The process already has attracted interest from defense
contractors, according to a person familiar with the discussions.
The request published Friday highlighted the network's military
purpose, noting its "intent is to ensure the greatest effective and
efficient use of the Department of Defense's spectrum for training,
readiness, and lethality."
The most valuable asset available to any contract winner would
come from the spectrum. Companies bid about $4.6 billion for
licenses in a recent Federal Communications Commission auction for
similar mid-band frequencies. Another license sale slated to start
in December will fetch tens of billions of dollars, according to
industry analysts. Leasing military spectrum, as the Pentagon has
suggested, would lower those network operators' acquisition
A shared network could still face opposition from wireless
carriers and from factions within the administration. White House
officials including President Trump publicly rebuked a similar
proposal for a nationwide network in early 2018.
Former Google Chairman Eric Schmidt has also publicly urged the
administration to adopt the plan. Mr. Schmidt, who ended an
advisory relationship with the online search giant in February, has
remained active in the venture capital world through Schmidt
Futures, a philanthropy. He also served on the Pentagon's Defense
Innovation Board until last week, when his term expired.
During a recent industry event hosted by telecom trade group
Incompas, Mr. Schmidt called the lack of 5G coverage "a national
emergency" that put U.S. industry at a disadvantage to China
"unless we do some form of sharing."
Past spectrum-sharing proposals have faced stiff opposition from
the wireless industry. Nick Ludlum, a spokesman for the wireless
industry trade association CTIA, said the U.S. already enjoys two
nationwide 5G networks with a third on the way. "We must stay the
course and focus on private-sector solutions," he said.
Backers of the new Pentagon-supported system have said it would
work much like FirstNet, a $40-billion AT&T program to provide
wireless services to police, firefighters and other civilian
public-safety customers. AT&T benefited from that arrangement
because its cellular subscribers can tap FirstNet frequencies for
phone calls and downloads during times of low demand from
The White House recently sided with traditional cellphone
carriers by pledging to direct 100 megahertz of Pentagon spectrum
toward an FCC auction in late 2021. FCC auctions are usually
winner-take-all affairs and have seen the most participation from
telephone companies, though other companies including cable
operators have also paid for spectrum. Satellite operator Dish
Network Corp. has spent more than $21 billion amassing wireless
spectrum for a cellular network.
The new shared-network proposal would target a much wider chunk
of the Department of Defense spectrum. Telecom engineers say those
mid-band frequencies, when available in broad swaths, are ideal for
new 5G technology and are seeing commercial use in other
Write to Drew FitzGerald at email@example.com
(END) Dow Jones Newswires
September 21, 2020 07:29 ET (11:29 GMT)
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