President Donald Trump and British Prime Minister Boris Johnson share much in common – a similar appearance, a showman’s presence, conservative (if not racist) beliefs, a nationalist ideology, reputed extramarital affairs and support for Brexit. However, their mutual affection hit the wall in late January over 5G – “Fifth Generation” – broadband technology when the UK decided that it could work with the Chinese tech company, Huawei, as a supplier of 5G equipment as long as its market share did not exceed 35 percent.
The promise of 5G wireless service is significant, increasing connection speeds by tenfold over the current – “4G” – broadband service. Trump tweeted in February 2019, “I want 5G, and even 6G, technology in the United States as soon as possible. It is far more powerful, faster, and smarter than the current standard. American companies must step up their efforts, or get left behind. There is no reason that we should be lagging behind on………”
Trump claims that 5G is important to him and the country. In April 2019, he declared, “The race to 5G is on and we must win” and promised “my administration is freeing up as much wireless spectrum as is needed.” He then went on to claim, “It’s a race our great companies are now involved in.” Trump and others within his administration have warned that Huawei represents a national security threat, potentially enabling China to spy on the communications of American government agencies, businesses and citizens.
In light of the UK’s decision to work with Huawei, Trump was – according to the Financial Times — “apoplectic” and had a heated argument with Johnson, threatening to cut intelligence ties with the UK; Sec. of State Mike Pompeo quickly withdrew the threat.
The British decision raised great confusion within the Trump administration. In a major foreign policy speech on February 6th, Attorney General Bill Barr warned, “China has built up a lead in 5G, capturing 40 percent of the global 5G infrastructure market. For the first time in history, the United States in not leading the next technology era.” He then declared, “Huawei is now the leading supplier on every continent, except North America. The United States does not have an equipment supplier.” Barr claims that China’s market share is 40 percent and its leading competitors are Nokia (17% share) and Ericsson (14% share). He then made a bold proposal: “Putting our large market and financial muscle behind one or both of these firms would make it a more formidable competitor and eliminate concerns over its staying power.”
Barr’s proposal freaked out the White House. The following day, key administration officials joined in a chorus to assail the proposal. Vice President Mike Pence appeared on CNBC insisting that “the best way forward” on 5G is through private enterprise, not government takeovers. He was quickly followed by Larry Kudlow, Trump’s economic adviser, who insisted that “the U.S. government is not in the business of buying companies, whether they’re domestic or foreign.”
A variety of federal agencies (including the NSA), corporations and politicians have put forward alternative strategies to address the nation’s lagging 5G status. Sen. Mark Warner (D-VA) introduced legislation establishing a $1 billion fund for “Western-based alternatives to Chinese equipment providers Huawei and ZTE.”
Unfortunately, U.S. problems with regard to the deployment of 5G have far more to do with structural problems with the telecom industry – and the role of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) – then Huawei.
The Trump administration — led the by FCC — and the telecom companies are committed to the deployment of what has been labelled 5G. Media ads champion it as the greatest next new thing, an answer to all the nation’s communications problems. And all-too-many popular stories and industry reports fail to consider fundamental problems associated with its deployment – let alone whether it is the right long-term strategy for the nation’s tele-communications.
Unknown to most Americans, the U.S. is a second-tier communications country. A July 2019 report from the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) ranked the U.S. 15th of the 34 OECD countries in terms of broadband usage. More revealing, a December 2019 report from Speedtest Global Index found the average speeds for download and upload — for mobile and fixed services — for the top 25 countries were as follows:
+ Mobile – download 32.01 Mbps; upload 12.02 Mbps;
+ Fixed Broadband – download 73.58 Mbps; upload 40.39 Mbps.
Compounding this picture, Americans pay more for inferior services. A 2019 report in Forbes assessed 6,313 mobile data plans in 230 countries and found that Americans pay the most for a gigabyte of data. Fees ranged from $0.26 in India and $0.27 in Kyrgyzstan to $1.73 in Italian, $2.99 in France, $6.66 in the United Kingdom and $6.96 in Germany. Costs in North America were the highest, averaging $12.02 in Canada and $12.38 in the U.S.
These findings are in line with estimates from New Networks Institute which reports that American subscribers to a basic “Triple Play” or bundled package — i.e., Internet, TV and phone services – pay between $70-$155 a month, not counting add-ons. In Europe, the OCED estimates that (in 2017) the Triple Play – broadband bundle — “basic” service ran $44.77 a month and the “cheapest” was only $15 a month. Thus, U.S. bundle prices ranked the highest – often two to three times higher – than other OCED countries.
Two fundamental challenges face the further deployment of 5G in the States – health concerns related to 5G signals and towers, and FCC telecom industry financing. Together, they raise substantial questions as to the whether the country will ever climb out of its second-tier telecom status.
One question that haunts 5G deployment is whether it is safe. Questions as to the health consequences of cellular communications date from 1993 when some early users claimed that cell-phone radiation caused cancer. The cell-phone industry sponsored research that raised serious questions as to the technology’s safety, but the research was fudged so as to protect the industry.
In 2013 the American Academy of Pediatrics requested the FCC to investigate the potential risks of 5G and numerous local and state governments have raised concerns about mobile cell phone use. In December 2019, the FCC reported that it found no health problems related to the rollout of 5G wireless networks. It cited the Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA) assertions that there was no scientific evidence linking cellphones use to health problems. “No expert health agency expressed concern about the Commission’s RF [radio frequency] exposure limits,” an FCC staff wrote.
In the fall of 2019, Scientific American hosted an informal debate over 5G’s safety. In the first opinion piece, “We Have No Reason to Believe 5G Is Safe,” Joel Moskowitz, PhD, director of UC Berkeley’s Center for Family and Community Health, argued that the FCC’s 1996 report focused on radio frequency radiation (RFR) and the behavioral changes in rats “exposed to microwave radiation and were designed to protect us from “short-term heating risks to RFR exposure.” The author points out since the original FCC study, “the preponderance of peer-reviewed research, more than 500 studies, have found harmful biologic or health effects from exposure to RFR at intensities too low to cause significant heating.”
In a follow-up piece, “Don’t Fall Prey to Scaremongering about 5G,” David Robert Grimes, a cancer researcher and physicist based at Dublin City University, dismissed Moskowitz’s findings. “Many of the studies Moskowitz linked to are of poor quality, and more tellingly, at least one he listed flatly contradict his dire assertions,” he asserts. Going further, he draws from a World Health Organization report that finds “a large number of studies have been performed over the last two decades to assess whether mobile phones pose a potential health risk. To date, no adverse health effects have been established as being caused by mobile phone use.”
The academic debate over the health consequences of 5G deployment persists and is moving from scholarly duels to the courtroom. On February 2nd, Children’s Health Defense (CHD), led by Robert Kennedy, Jr., filed suit in the U.S. Court of Appeals Ninth Circuit against the FCC for its failure since 1996 to review its health guidelines and “to promulgate scientific, human evidence-based radio frequency emissions (‘RF’) rules that adequately protect public health from wireless technology radiation.”
CHD’s suit is based, in part, on a 2012 report by the General Accountability Office (GAO) that found that the then-existing guidelines may not more recent scientific and medical knowledge and recommended that the FCC formally reassess its guidelines. The FCC’s guidelines address only one aspect of potential harm from electromagnetic radiation — heat. The current guidelines do not address other ways in which exposure to increasing electromagnetic radiation from wireless communications can harm human health as well as the environmental systems upon which all life depends.
In its suit, CHD joined forces with the Irregulators, a group of “senior telecom experts, analysts, forensic auditors, and lawyers …,” including former FCC officials, who are challenging the FCC’s accounting practices. On January 17, 2020, they appeared before the U.S. District Court in Washington, DC, to argue that the FCC has facilitated one of the largest accounting scandals in American history.
On March 13, 2020, the DC Court of Appeals ruled on the case, providing an opportunity for states and cities across the country to bring cases against the nation’s telecommunications utilities. The Court formally dismissed the Irregulators case because “none of them possesses Article III standing.” However, the Court took the group’s concerns seriously and – citing Nat’l Rural Telecom Ass’n v. FCC (1993) — noted:
Rate-of-return carriers also have perverse incentives to shift costs “away from unregulated activities (where consumers would react to higher prices by reducing their purchases) into the regulated ones (where the price increase will cause little or no drop in sales because under regulation the prices are in a range where demand is relatively unresponsive to price changes).”
Most critically, it went further and insisted:
… any injuries the petitioners suffer through the application of outmoded Part 36 [of Code of Federal Regulations] rules to price-cap carriers are traceable not to the Commission’s freeze order but to the states’ voluntary and independent decisions to use the rules of Part 36 for their own purposes.
Thus, the Court fulfilled the Irregulators primary objective and opened the door for states and cities to bring claims against individual telecom companies.
The group accused the FCC of “freezing” its cost-accounting rules 19 years ago, thus allowing the nation’s telecommunications companies – the telecom trust – to engage in a bookkeeping slight-of-hand practices that costs telecom users, states and taxpayers across the country an estimated $50-$60 billion a year. The group estimates that over the last decade this scam has cost users $500 billion or upwards of $1 trillion since 2000.
The FCC divides the communications into two distinct service categories. Title I services consist of enhanced “information services” whereas Title II services designate basic or “common carrier” services. Title I services are subject to fewer regulations, whereas Title II services are subject to more regulation.
The Irregulators argue that the giant telecoms, in collusion with the FCC, are seeking to fully privatize the Internet. Together, they are pushing the adoption of 5G wireless technology as a substitute for fiber-to-the-home. The Irregulators, along with others, see this as but the latest move to not only remove all regulations and allow private companies to take over the state utility wired networks, but provide Americans with a second-rate – as possible harmful – communications infrastructure.
The Irregators’ Bruce Kushnick, head of New Networks, warns: “The 5G frenzy is like any of the previous techno-bait-and-switch schemes — and this one is ironically similar to the super-hyped 1990’s ‘Info-Highway’ when America was supposed to get a fiber optic network that would replace the existing copper wires.” 5G utilizes higher-frequency radio bands but to be deployed, the system requires the installation of greater number of cell transmitters and receivers that are located closer to the ground and to a customer’s home.
At the heart of the Irregulators case is a call for federal and state officials – and ordinary telecom users – to remember that phone services are state regulated public telecommunications utilities. Its suit serves to reveal that since AT&T was formally broken-up into seven Regional Bell Companies in 1984, two things have occurred – (i) the telecom industry re-consolidated and (ii) the FCC became a corporate-industry-captured government agency that stopped working for the public good.
The great telecommunications revolution of the 1990s was based on a notion of fiber-to-the-home (FTTH), an infrastructure that guaranteed everyone – whether in a big city or the rural heartland – equal access to the world-wide-web. It was introduced in 1999 and began to take off in 2001 and, by 2007, 10.5 million FTTH connections were reported. In 2008, NASA conceives 5G wireless technology and the telecom industry quickly commercialized it, seeing it as an easier to implement and a cheaper option than FTTH. With the shift from wired to wireless services, the U.S. begins the steady decline as a first-tier telecom nation.
The effort to provide FTTH to all Americans has ended. As the Electronic Frontier Foundation noted: “Wireless carriers are working hard to talk up 5G (Fifth Generation) wireless as the future of broadband. But don’t be fooled—they are only trying to focus our attention on 5G to try to distract us from their willful failure to invest in a proven ultrafast option for many Americans: fiber to the home, or FTTH.”
Sadly, the U.S. is likely to remain a second-tier communications nation for the foreseeable future.