America's mobile infrastructure isn't good enough, at least according to former National Security Council officer Brigadier General Robert Spalding. Spalding's briefing document said the US was lagging behind China in wireless, and the solution was to build its own federal 5G network. The memo cost Spalding his job and sent parts of Washington DC into fits of apoplexy over the proposals. But this idea, deemed too radical to even discuss in the US, has actually been implemented in countries like Mexico, Rwanda and Australia.
Spalding was advocating for an Open Access Wireless Network (OAWN), a country-wide cellular network that uses all the spectrum allocated for a band. Imagine that, instead of auctioning the 4G spectrum off to businesses, a nation builds and runs the infrastructure itself. Carriers would then buy capacity on the network to sell on as their own service, much like MVNOs (like Boost, Cricket and Project Fi) do on major US networks today.
The only difference between the current situation in the US and an OAWN is that in the latter, service is near-universal, so coverage is no longer a major selling point. Since the whole spectrum is allocated to a single network, the overall speeds are significantly faster, which is better for consumers. Lower cost, faster speeds and better distribution means 5G may be able to connect rural areas that remain without any access. It's one of the reasons the OECD backs OAWNs as a way of increasing access and lowering prices to the internet.
Competition is essential to ensure prices remain low, making it harder for new companies to enter the mobile business. Infrastructure is sufficiently expensive that even a billion-dollar conglomerate like Google thought about, and then shied away from, competing with Verizon and AT&T. Mexico is a good example of what happens when a single entity has de-facto monopoly control over a country's telecommunications.
Carlos Slim's América Móvil is Mexico's principal communications provider through its subsidiaries, Telmex and Telcel. It controls up to 80 percent of the country's landline market and almost 70 percent of its mobile business. As far back as 2012, Mexico believed Telcel was too powerful, and sought ways to curb its dominance. Investopedia believes Móvil has blocked competitors by charging high fees to rivals looking to build businesses in Mexico. High prices and poor service have consequently become common gripes, and something had to give.
The Mexican government decided to establish its own OAWN in 2014, called Red Compartida ("Shared Network"). Altan Redes is building the network, which will cost around US$7 billion coming from a mix of public and private sources. Crucially, Altan is barred from launching its own wireless service, making it an impartial provider of capacity that it can sell on to others. Red Compartida is expected to begin on March 31st, 2018, covering just 30 percent of the population, but it's hoped that by 2023, that figure will reach 92 percent.