In the spring of 2019, former House speaker and Trump campaign adviser Newt Gingrich was worried about China’s role in the deployment of 5G, the next generation of data networks that backers promised would herald the dawn of a new era of connectivity using smart devices.
In a February 2019 opinion column in Newsweek, Gingrich warned that Chinese manufacturers Huawei and ZTE were set to dominate the infrastructure buildout for 5G unless shared spectrum — the invisible airspace that networks need to operate — was made available for a public-private partnership to build, as he put it, a “carrier-neutral, wholesale-only, nationwide 5G network.”
New records obtained by American Oversight through Freedom of Information Act requests show just how aggressively Gingrich pushed the Federal Communications Commission, including then-Chairman Ajit Pai, toward a 5G vision that aligned with the business interests of Rivada Networks. Rivada is a company that specializes in managing spectrum access and has financial ties to long-time Trump supporter Peter Thiel and conservative strategist Karl Rove.
In the U.S., the FCC generally manages access to spectrum available to the public through auctions. FCC auctions for commercial 5G spectrum, for example, began in 2018 and are ongoing. However, some spectrum is also controlled by Department of Defense.
Rivada’s major push was to develop the spectrum controlled by the Defense Department into what the company described as an “Open Access Wireless Market,” in which the military would still have priority but Rivada would make unused spectrum available to the public through a 5G network privately managed by the company.
The perhaps surprisingly government-involved approach to 5G promoted by some conservatives in Trump’s circle, including Gingrich, appeared in a 2018 National Security Council memo about nationalizing the network and seemed to eschew traditional Republican free-market values. (The official who authored the memo left the NSC shortly after it was leaked.) Related criticisms of the often monopolistic status quo in the telecom sector, where a handful of major companies like Verizon and AT&T dominate much of the market, resonated with some — but also drew scrutiny because of the potential financial benefit to Thiel.
The records obtained by American Oversight reveal a series of emails from 2019 in which Gingrich arranged discussions with Pai and FCC staff about 5G and China. He also shared messaging and a report that outlined Rivada’s goals.
Politico had reported in early March 2019 that the 2020 Trump campaign, specifically Gingrich and then-Trump campaign manager Brad Parscale, was pushing for more government involvement in the rollout of 5G, despite the lack of support for such a plan within the Trump administration and at the FCC.
“A 5G wholesale market would drive down costs and provide access to millions of Americans who are currently underserved,” Kayleigh McEnany, then-national press secretary for Trump’s campaign, told Politico, in an apparent endorsement of the plan. Politico also reported that the campaign said Parscale had no financial interest in Rivada or 5G, and that Gingrich said he wasn’t being paid by the company.
American Oversight’s records show Gingrich’s lobbying effort at the FCC started soon afterward. On March 18, 2019, Gingrich emailed Pai requesting a meeting to discuss 5G technologies. Pai emailed Gingrich on April 9, agreeing to a phone call and copying his scheduler on the email.
Later that week, with Pai by his side, then-President Donald Trump made statements that appeared to reject further government intervention in the development of 5G networks, siding with the FCC chairman and major telecom companies instead of with the approach favored by Gingrich and Rivada. Gingrich followed up again the next week, along with a link to a Washington Post article about Huawei and 5G.
The messages suggest the pair spoke on April 18. The following day, Gingrich sent Pai an email with the subject line “Our chat last night led me to write this summary of the challenge. What do you think.” In the email, Gingrich argued that countering China’s dominance in the buildout of 5G networks amounted to “the third great contest” after World War II and the Cold War “for the survival of a civilization based on freedom and the rule of law.” He sent Pai a slightly updated version of the summary later that day.
On April 23, Gingrich emailed Pai, complaining about difficulties he was having in scheduling a meeting. He followed up by sending Pai several messages on April 26 that appear to be attempts to show the FCC chair that there was significant support for his 5G plan.
“I am told earl Comstock at commerce is favorable,” one reads. (The bodies of Gingrich’s emails are empty, with messages appearing only in the subject line.) Comstock, a former congressional staffer who focused on telecommunications but now works in the private sector, was then serving as director of policy and senior adviser to Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross.
Another email subject line from Gingrich said, “Great meeting with Shanahan you can count on him as an ally,” an apparent reference to then-Acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan, who later withdrew from consideration for permanently filling that role because of increased scrutiny of past domestic violence allegations.
That same day, Gingrich also connected Pai with Roger Robinson, who once served as chairman of the congressional U.S.-China Economic and Security Review. Gingrich wrote that the two “should get together.” He copied Claire Christensen, the director of research and Chinese studies at Gingrich 360, his media and consulting firm. The next day, he requested the email addresses of “the two men who sat in with us,” appearing to confirm a recent meeting.
On May 6, Gingrich sent Pai and two advisers, Nicholas Degani and Aaron Goldberger, a report he had prepared for House and Senate members called “5G: America at the Tipping Point.” The report argued that the U.S. “must achieve 100 percent 5G coverage for rural America as rapidly as possible“ and that the country needed to make a concerted effort to beat Chinese competitors in technology and financing so that “the next generation of worldwide internet … will be based on the principles of freedom and the rule of law.“
The report outlined a proposed strategy that included the Defense Department issuing a formal call for proposals about sharing spectrum that was currently controlled by the agency with the private sector, echoing the plan being pushed Rivada.
None of these early 2019 messages specifically mentioned Rivada. But in November of that year, Gingrich forwarded to Pai messages from Rivada CEO Declan Ganley. Ganley had complained about tweets posted by Nathan Leamer, a former FCC adviser, in which Leamer described having advised Pai against Rivada’s plans, including after a meeting in which “Newt came by to mansplain the issue.” Ganley said the tweets indicated the “level of regulatory capture” at the FCC and added that Leamer had moved on to a consulting firm whose leadership noted AT&T among its clients.
Ganley’s email also copied Republican operative Karl Rove and Rivada spokesperson Brian Carney. Politico had reported on March 29, 2019, that Rove sat in on lobbying meetings with staff from the House and Senate Armed Services Committees in support of Rivada, although he was not then a registered lobbyist and the company denied he was lobbying for them.
“Karl is not our lobbyist,” Carney had told Politico in March. “We have a lobbyist who arranges meetings. At some of the meetings, Karl has been present, but it falls to the lobbyist to do the lobbying.”
But just three weeks later, Rove registered as a lobbyist supporting Rivada, backdating his “Effective Date of Registration” to Jan. 8 and listing “Wholesale, open access 5G network” as the subject of his advocacy. His first-quarter report for 2019, filed days later, elaborated on Rivada’s goal, describing it as the “Creation of a privately funded, privately built and operated open access 5G wireless network, [using] shared DoD spectrum.” Later reporting, including from Sue Halpern at the New Yorker, identified Rove as a Rivada investor.
Although this is the extent of the details revealed in American Oversight’s documents so far, public reporting suggests that Rivada-related spectrum lobbying continued, making headway — and raising serious questions about influence-peddling — during the final months of the Trump administration.
In September 2020, the Defense Department posted a formal Request For Information seeking proposals for the use of wireless spectrum under the agency’s control, mirroring the one suggested by Gingrich’s report and in Rove’s Rivada lobbying disclosure. The request, which has since been deactivated, drew almost immediate blowback from Republican and Democratic lawmakers, who criticized it as an attempt to nationalize 5G, with Democrats specifically citing concerns over Rivada’s influence.
Rivada pushed back in an Oct. 8 press release that announced the creation of a group called “Americans Against Nationalization” and compared concerns that it was pushing for a nationalized 5G network to a belief in vampirism.
“Rivada Networks does not believe in vampires, and it does not support nationalizing ‘5G,’ 5G networks, or anything else,” the press release said. The company further claimed to oppose the national control of spectrum as an assault on common-law property rights. Ganley is quoted in the release condemning “’Regulatory Capture,’ ‘Crony Corporatism’ and the ‘Wireless Carrier Cartel,’” which he said allowed “carriers continue to operate a coin operated swamp machine to protect themselves from serious price competition.”
On Oct. 12, Axios reported that then-White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows was pushing the Pentagon to begin plans for a national 5G network. And later that month, CNN reported that the White House was trying to rush forward the plan to allocate Defense Department spectrum to Rivada in what amounted to a no-bid contract. (Ganley is now suing CNN in Ireland, alleging defamation in that reporting.)
It’s unclear what Rivada’s next steps will be, given that much of its strategy appeared to be based on political ties to the Trump administration. But the future of 5G is again up in the air in the new administration, with key figures such as Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo and Acting FCC Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel having voiced support for a more cohesive national strategy on spectrum.
American Oversight will continue to investigate outside influence over key issues of public interest through our records requests to federal, state, and local agencies.