WASHINGTON — Pentagon IT leaders have spent the week insisting the Defense Department does not want to build its own 5G network after a controversial request for information troubled lawmakers, including, most recently, House Armed Services Committee Chairman Adam Smith.
The White House is reportedly pressuring the Pentagon to lease some of its prized spectrum for the lucrative 5G market to a single politically connected company, Rivada, using a non-competitive process. The White House’s push to fast track a contract for mid-band spectrum to Rivada Networks has alarmed senior administration officials, according to CNN.
Rivada and the Pentagon have both rejected those reports, but the denials haven’t squelched concerns on Capitol Hill that the administration is using the Defense Department to make an end-run around regulators in pursuit of an expensive boondoggle.
The concern on Capitol Hill and elsewhere stems from a September RFI from the Department of Defense that seeks industry input on dynamic spectrum sharing, or ways the Defense Department and commercial entities can safely operate on the same spectrum bands.
The RFI asks “how could DoD own and operate 5G networks for its domestic operations?” and “what are the potential issues with DoD owning and operating independent networks for its 5G operations?,” which has fueled fears and pushback in industry about DoD nationalizing a 5G network.
In a statement to C4ISRNET on Wednesday, Pentagon spokesperson Russ Goemaere said “No, DOD does not intend to own and operate a national 5G network.” Rather, he said, the DoD needs to better understand how dynamic spectrum sharing can support training, readiness and lethality in the contiguous United States.
"This RFI will help DOD understand best methods and approaches for owning and operating independent DoD 5G networks supporting ‘spectrum for training, readiness, and lethality,’ " Goemaere said.
Rivada has also denied allegations that it’s in favor of a nationalized 5G network.
“We want to add our voice to those condemning, in the strongest terms, anyone planning to nationalize 5G in America. Whoever they may be. Assuming they exist,” the company said in a statement Oct. 8.
The company also released part of its response to the RFI earlier in the week that listed several reasons the DoD shouldn’t operate a national 5G network, including costs of operations and maintenance, as well as limited coverage and capacity.
Frustration on the Hill
The plan has been met with opposition from the wireless industry, Republican and Democratic lawmakers, and reportedly senior officials within the Trump administration. On Wednesday, Smith told reporters he too is opposed to what he has heard so far.
“I don’t initially support the idea of DoD controlling the 5G network and building it. Someone’s going to have to do a lot of convincing to show me that’s a good idea,” Smith said.
Smith said he agrees with U.S. efforts to counter Chinese dominance in 5G and build a western alternative, and he supports spectrum sharing between the Pentagon and private sector as a way there. But the prospect of a nationalized, DoD-led 5G network has “a lot of folks a little bit nervous” about its feasibility and effectiveness, Smith said, adding the administration’s true plans remained unclear.
“There is concern if DoD comes in and says, ‘we’re just going to build and control the network’ — and it’s a little murky right now exactly where the Trump administration’s at or whether or not they’re going to try to go forward with that plan,” Smith said. “That’s what we’re trying to get some answers to right now.”
The direct nature of the White House’s push, and emphasis on a fast result, has frustrated and confused congressional committees and agencies covering commercial spectrum allocation — such as the National Telecommunications and Information Administration and Federal Communications Commission — that are traditionally involved in forming telecommunications policy, according to one congressional staffer.
Leading the effort on Capitol Hill are Fox News commentator and GOP strategist Karl Rove, who is also a lobbyist for Rivada, and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, a close ally of the president.
“When you have somebody going directly to members, that’s usually a sign they’re trying to pull one over because they’re not interested in doing an evidenced-based approach, talking to experts for that member of Congress. Using people like Karl Rove and Newt Gingrich was an indicator early on that Rivada was not interested in engaging in good faith, but was interested in corporate welfare,” the staffer said.
Two lawmakers with jurisdiction over the issue — Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Frank Pallone, Jr., D-N.J., and Communications and Technology Subcommittee Chairman Mike Doyle, D-Pa. — said they are probing reports the White House had “instructed DoD to proceed immediately to a Request for Proposal (‘RFP’) in order to move forward toward a national 5G network.”
“According to press accounts, several political operatives or lobbyists with close ties to President Trump or his staff – including Karl Rove, Peter Thiel, Newt Gingrich and Brad Parscale – are pushing for the seismic shift in spectrum policy contemplated by the RFI,” they said in a statement this month, referring to the DoD RFI on dynamic spectrum sharing.
“These reports also suggest these Republican operatives are working for the benefit of a specific company, Rivada, Inc., which has long championed a national network that Rivada would construct and operate using its sharing technology.”
They argued that DoD has “limited or no legal authority … to construct, operate, or maintain a commercial communications network or lease its assigned electromagnetic spectrum (‘spectrum’) to private entities to provide commercial communications service,” and asked that the Government Accountability Office conduct a legal analysis to confirm it.
On the other side of the aisle, a Republican aide to the committee warned that Congress would have to be consulted before DoD proceeds beyond the initial RFI.
“DOD is collecting information to build a public record, which is never a bad thing, but if the DOD takes additional steps forward we would have to evaluate whatever those proposals may be," the aide said. "[Energy and Commerce Committee ranking member Greg Walden, R-Ore.] has publicly stated that he opposes a nationalized 5G network, as do all five FCC commissioners.”
Eighteen Senate Republicans led by Communications, Technology, Innovation, and the Internet Subcommittee Chairman John Thune, R-S.D., wrote to President Donald Trump, to argue against, “nationalizing 5G and experimenting with untested models for 5G deployment,” and in favor of previous White House efforts, which emphasized the private sector building multiple 5G networks. They did not mention Rivada.
“While we recognize the need for secure communications networks for our military, we are concerned that such a proposal threatens our national security,” their letter said. “When bad actors only need to penetrate one network, they have a greater likelihood of disrupting the United States' communications services.”
The spectrum sharing RFI
Dynamic spectrum sharing is a technology the Defense Department is working to develop. The Pentagon recently announced six vendors would take part in a test bed at Hill Air Force Base in Utah, part of $600 million investment into 5G experimentation.
The new RFI for spectrum sharing, developed in part by the office of DoD chief information officer, is another step forward in developing ways to share spectrum so the DoD systems that will rely on 5G, like many radar systems, can continue operating unencumbered.
A major problem, according to former FCC commissioner Harold Furchtgott-Roth, is that the RFI is “vaguely worded and at times not very accurately worded.”
“A benign interpretation of the RFI is that they’re really focused on the technology and not on non-federal networks,” said Furchtgott-Roth, now a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute. “But the less benign is that ‘5G’ is really a codeword for civilian networks.”
Though the RFI has caused outcry, Furchtgott-Roth told C4ISRNET that the RFI did raise “good questions” about spectrum sharing with commercial companies. One of the routes the Pentagon explores in the RFI is leasing the spectrum it owns instead of reallocating.
“The Department believes that more spectrum sharing must be the norm and that technology is a way to achieve greater sharing,” said Goemaere, the DoD spokesman.
“As a result, DOD is looking for new approaches to spectrum policy, access, and use, and for innovative spectrum sharing technologies. This RFI seeks to expand DOD’s knowledge base, understand the state-of-the-art, and inform future DoD research, development and acquisition activities.”
Asked if the source selection process would be competitive, Goemaere told C4ISRNET that the DoD will “follow Federal Acquisition Regulations if any further acquisition is sought on this effort.”
Furchtgott-Roth said that the leasing aspect raises questions about the DoD’s authority to rent out federal assets — a piece that the DoD is also looking for answers to in its RFI. Any RFP would likely need to be a multi-award contract. Given the DoD’s challenges with sole-source contracts in the past, particularly its Joint Enterprise Infrastructure Cloud, multiple vendors are likely needed.
“It’s hard to imagine that the Pentagon would want to repeat that disaster,” Furchtgott-Roth said.
Andrew Eversden covers all things defense technology for C4ISRNET. He previously reported on federal IT and cybersecurity for Federal Times and Fifth Domain, and worked as a congressional reporting fellow for the Texas Tribune. He was also a Washington intern for the Durango Herald. Andrew is a graduate of American University.