Please no, Mr. President, do not even flirt with putting the federal government in charge of building and operating a new 5G wireless network! Sure, you’ll hate to disappoint the hawks on the National Security Council (NSC), but please let this remain outside the scope of your infrastructure plan!! For one thing, the private sector already has it underway, and the task is not straightforward. Excessive government involvement would almost surely botch the job. Let’s face it: while shrill calls for central planning of one form or another are constantly heard from leftists and populists, the government is really lousy at it. But then good central economic planning is impossible, given the impossibility of knowing and tracking the vast and dynamic information flows necessary to get it done, not to mention knowing and executing the appropriate responses to that information. There is a better tool for that called “markets”.
Scott Shackford reports that the chairman of the FCC, Ajit Pai, reacted with swift condemnation to the 5G discussions taking place within the NSC. Do read the whole Shackford piece. Apparently, there are some in the NSC who imagine government being good at building, maintaining, and securing a wireless network. This despite the antiquated nature of the federal government’s information systems and, as Shackford notes, their poor security. There is also the potential threat that communications over such a network would be subject to monitoring by nosey law enforcement and other public officials. If national security always implies state control, I’ll take less, but I don’t believe that’s the case for a minute.
The government tends to be a poor custodian of infrastructure — really public assets in general, and there is a reason: incentives are lacking. Private communication networks keep improving thanks to private incentives, like the prices and profits that promote efficient behavior and the market pressures to offer data plans that private users value. The government, on the other hand, struggles even to maintain the interstate highway system, which is simple technology by comparison. But statists tend to view the lack of private incentives as a feature: it’s free! And as a consequence, it is over-utilized and under-maintained. Ultimately the taxpayer is on the hook for capital costs and any upkeep that can be mustered, not the user, but the user suffers the degraded quality of those assets. A nationalized wireless network and its users would suffer the same fate.
Private infrastructure like wireless networks is best encouraged by eliminating regulatory roadblocks to private construction and operation of those assets. That includes the welcome rollback of the stifling network neutrality rules. Low taxes also help, not to say special incentives for wireless carriers.