Q&A: Mike Rogers, Man of 5G Action

As chairman of the self-explanatory 5G Action Now advocacy group, Mike Rogers, the former Michigan Republican congressman and chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, has been pushing hard for freeing up spectrum for 5G, including most prominently for the C-band spectrum, used for satellite delivery of TV signals, that the Federal Communications Commission is opening up for WiFi.

It is all about beating China in the race for next-generation wireless supremacy, which means Rogers is also laser-focused on protecting the 5G supply chain and finding a way to wean it from reliance on suspect tech, most prominently Huawei and ZTE, though he thinks the government should help those companies disengage.

Rogers has said the COVID-19 pandemic has shown the problematic nature of China in the supply chain.

5G Action Now chairman Mike Rogers says he pandemic has laid bare China’s problematic role in the tech supply chain. 

5G Action Now chairman Mike Rogers says he pandemic has laid bare China’s problematic role in the tech supply chain. 

As he prepared to testify before the U.K. Parliament about securing 5G networks, Rogers spoke with Multichannel News about the challenges and importance of winning that race.

MCN: Why is freeing up C-band midband spectrum so important in the race to 5G?

Mike Rogers: It is really the ‘Goldilocks’ spectrum. It has the best properties for efficient use of 5G technologies. Anything else adds latency and expense. The C-band is critical if we are going to compete both nationally and internationally to get the innovation surrounding 5G, and then to open it up to allow it to be used for 5G deployment.

MCN: You are all about winning the race to 5G. Why is that so important?

MR: I think the COVID-19 supply chain issues have shone a very bright light on why this is so important. There were certain medicines that the Chinese decided to restrict or that they had and weren’t going to give up even though they had contracts with U.S. companies. Same with PPEs, the personal protection equipment.

This, I think, clearly demonstrated why those of us who have been concerned about a secure 5G supply chain have said it is really important that we don’t have the [Chinese] Communist Party controlling data that traverses around the world.

That is why we have to win this. Just as in 4G, when you could finally be on an airplane, order a shirt and have it sent to your house. If you think how important 4G was to commerce and how it exploded the use of the internet, that is what 5G is going to be for the ‘internet of things.’ Every device that is connected, from your HVAC system to manufacturing to connected cars and telemedicine, is going to be connected with these sensors. So that is going to be a tremendous economic boon for whoever controls this, No. 1. And, by the way, you want it to be secure and you want the competitive advantage to go to countries that play by Western values.

Clearly, China has shown they have not played by those values in the COVID-19 epidemic.

MCN: Sen. John Kennedy (R-La.) says the Intelsat bankruptcy proceeding means the FCC should rethink the C-band auction. Is he wrong?

MR: I do think he is misguided on this, for sure. These are the companies that have invested billions of dollars and have U.S. employees and were given licenses to this spectrum some 20 years ago when nobody cared about it and they invested in what it took to be successful using this spectrum that was licensed to them by the federal government. These are the same companies that filmed the first American touching down on the moon that I looked at as a young kid on a black-and-white TV.

I do think if you are going to arbitrarily say we are going to take that back and do something else with it, because we gave them the license and expected them to do something with it and they did, then at least make it right.

Are they going to get all the spectrum [auction] money? I don’t think that would be appropriate, and neither do they. But some balance is appropriate.

Yes, Intelsat has filed for bankruptcy. I think they are going to come out stronger on the other end of things. But that doesn’t mean that the government should take something from a company that was playing by the rules given them. And by the way, doing all that just makes it that much more complicated to clear that spectrum and get on the other side where we are actually competing and beating the Chinese to 5G development.

MCN: So this is not just about helping those satellite companies, but also because this is the fastest way to get the spectrum?

MR: Absolutely this is the fastest way to get it to market. You want the companies that are in that spectrum today to be good partners in clearing the spectrum. It has nothing to do with the financial value of it necessarily, other than the companies have all this investment in it and I do believe the government should respect at least a portion of that.

We should move as quickly as we can under the plan that was laid out by [FCC] chairman Ajit Pai, which was a solid plan. Speeding this innovation across America is what is most important. Doing anything that stands in the way of that is counterproductive and certainly helpful to the Chinese.

MCN: That is a good segue to the issue of Huawei and scrubbing suspect tech from the 5G supply chain. But that is going to take a while given that company’s prominence in the 5G supply chain. Is there anything that can be done in the interim?

MR: Yes. The government has set some pretty clear rules and within a year is going to identify equipment that poses a security risk and must be immediately removed. Then there will be a layer of equipment that will be Huawei gear, [but] that won’t be as important to remove right away and can be phased out while still protecting national security. And I think that is exactly what’s happening.

MCN: Are you OK with a phased approach?

MR: I do think that it is not inappropriate for the government to try and help these companies.

Back in 2012 [when Rogers was chairman of the House Intelligence Committee], I was firing the flare and hoisting the flag about companies like Huawei, ZTE and others who were stealing IP [intellectual property] and artificially competing around the globe because the Chinese government was supporting deals so they could get contracts. So, yes, I am concerned with all of that.

But it was legal for these companies to put this equipment in the network and now the U.S. government is saying, ‘Get it out.’ My point is, can we help them do that? It can’t be just, ‘You have to eat this cost, what was legal yesterday is not legal today.’ There should be a path forward for these companies that should include tax breaks or some kind of financial offset. I think that would be a much better place to be.

Then, the ecosystem that builds is from Western companies that have a market they can compete in and invest in. To me, that is equally important. You have to cost the taxpayers a little bit upfront to buy security, which I think is OK, and it also allows innovation and rewards companies for competing and investing in this space.

MCN: Do you think the president is serious about this crackdown and won’t use it as a trade bargaining chip with China, as he appeared to be doing at one point?

MR: There was certainly one time where I think there was some confusion in the administration about whether this was a security issue or a trade issue. I think they are past that now. I think everyone understands that the security risk of the Chinese Communist government — and by the way their plan is data supremacy by 2025 — is a nonstarter to people who are concerned about the supply chain and the protection of their personal data. This is a security issue, and if China wants to re-engage the world as fair competitors without stealing intellectual property and having the government subsidize contracts to win deals and providing loans that don’t have to be repaid, I would say, welcome back to the market. The problem is they have shown no interest in doing that.

“The C-band is critical if we are going to compete both nationally and internationally to get the innovation surrounding 5G.”

MCN: Has the U.K. come around on removing Huawei from its 5G networks rather than still allowing the company to have some profile and, more broadly, would you recommend not sharing intelligence with any country that does not remove them?

MR: I would worry about very sensitive data going over Huawei-controlled networks, routing and multiplexing and all of that. There are ways around it, but our British friends got the point and, I think more
than anything, the understanding that, ‘Guess what, this Chinese infrastructure has caused us problems with another critical infrastructure, medical personal protection equipment and supplies and medicine and, really, do we want to turn our data, and all of that, and all that 5G will bring, into the hands of the Chinese communist government.’ I think that is why people are starting to rethink their position.

In fact I am testifying in front of [Parliament’s] Defense [Select] Committee [on June 2], so I know they are going to rethink their decision. Parliament is going to get another bite at this apple, so I think these hearings are going to prove to be pretty important on this decision to just throw this open to Huawei. If they are in your network a little bit, they are in your network a lot. Data is data. If your sensitive data is flying over networks and [Huawei] does control the ability to multiplex, that’s a problem.

MCN: You are testifying remotely, I assume?

MR: Originally it was proposed that I show up, but I think we are going to do it remotely, yes.

MCN: Who backs 5G Action, which launched this year: wireless ISPs, ISPs, satellite companies?

MR: Yeah, you can assume people who are interested in clearing the space responsibly are interested in trying to make sure of two things: One, that people understand that Huawei and ZTE and these other Chinese companies are benefiting from the very strong hand of the Chinese government, and two, what it is going to mean to clear that spectrum in the most responsible way as fast as we can. One of the keys to 5G is getting that spectrum out into the hands of the private sector, the folks who can bid on it and use it to develop 5G. 

John Eggerton

Contributing editor John Eggerton has been an editor and/or writer on media regulation, legislation and policy for over four decades, including covering the FCC, FTC, Congress, the major media trade associations, and the federal courts. In addition to Multichannel News and Broadcasting + Cable, his work has appeared in Radio World, TV Technology, TV Fax, This Week in Consumer Electronics, Variety and the Encyclopedia Britannica.