Everyone agrees we need more spectrum, so why is Congress making it complicated?

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Politics prioritized over policy is de rigueur these days, but it shouldn’t be for spectrum auction reauthorization. The importance to the US economy and to national security of getting more spectrum into private, productive hands should make empowering the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to do so a no-brainer. But this is Congress during an election year, so nothing can be easy.   

The FCC’s spectrum auction authority expired in March 2023, the first time it’s been allowed to lapse in 30 years, so congressional action is necessary. The federal government is the largest owner of spectrum (approximately 60% of spectrum bands are under government control), so allocation of spectrum from governmental use to auction in the private sector is critical. 

While all spectrum frequency bands are important, mid-band is considered the “goldilocks” of spectrum because it can cover more distance than high-band with more speed and capacity than low-band. Unfortunately, it’s well documented that the US is falling behind China in spectrum allocation, particularly mid-band. China has allocated 70% more licensed mid-band spectrum for 5G than the US. 

Senate Commerce Committee Chair Maria Cantwell’s (D-WA) Spectrum and National Security Act, is set to be marked up again, after three postponements. Thankfully, it would reauthorize critical spectrum auction authority. Unfortunately, it includes only two of the five spectrum bands for in-depth study that the White House’s National Spectrum Strategy recommends, rendering it insufficient to close the mid-band spectrum deficit with China. Congress is moving in the right direction with the auction reauthorization, but it could do better priming the pump for more licensed spectrum availability in the future.   

And, like dragging a honey-coated sock through a public park, nothing gets through Congress clean. The bill includes what National Review’s Dominic Pino calls Web Welfare. It authorizes borrowing billions from the US Treasury to fund the unnecessary, market-distorting, and fraud-laden Affordable Connectivity Program. Congress could do better by doing less and letting this subsidy program die.

Tomorrow’s mark-up will reveal if Congress can keep going in the right direction with auction reauthorization while, ideally, making some important improvements to the bill. But again, this is Congress in an election year, so maybe adjust your expectations accordingly.