Spectrum spectacle: Security and competitiveness demand action on spectrum

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We are familiar with the proverb “He who hesitates is lost.” Unfortunately, the United States is hesitating in allocating more spectrum to the marketplace and is at risk of falling behind in the ongoing global security, technology, and economic competition. It’s a spectacle we have to avoid.

First, a few basics about spectrum. There is licensed spectrum, which forms the core of mobile networks, and unlicensed spectrum, which is used by services such as Wi-Fi. There are 3 spectrum frequency bands (low, middle, and high). Low-band has a wide coverage area but less capacity. High-band has a smaller coverage area but high capacity. 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.

The federal government is the largest owner of spectrum (approximately 60% of spectrum bands are under government control). The process for allocating spectrum from the federal government to non-governmental use can include Congressional authorization, spectrum identification by an agency such as the NTIA, and an FCC auction of the allocated spectrum.

The US is behind the curve in getting spectrum to the marketplace. An article by Keith Krach and FCC Commissioner Brendan Carr states that the US is looking at mid-band spectrum deficits, particularly in comparison to China. Krach and Carr point out that China “has amassed four times as much licensed midband spectrum as the US.”

A 2022 Analysis Mason study commissioned by CTIA – The Wireless Association – demonstrates the concerns. It finds that among benchmark countries (including China, France, Japan, South Korea, and the UK) the US lags on licensed mid-band spectrum and is expected to continue to lag over the next 5 years. Even in low-band and high-band spectrum where the US currently has leadership, other countries are expected to overtake the US during the next 5 years.

On top of that, the FCC’s spectrum auction authority expired in March 2023. This is the first time that authority has been allowed to lapse in 30 years.

There is some activity to address these issues. In November 2023, the White House released its National Spectrum Strategy which recognizes that “America’s security, safety, technological leadership, and economic growth depend, in no small measure, on sufficient access to spectrum.” The Strategy cites an estimate that “data traffic on macro cellular networks is expected to increase by over 250 percent in the next 5 years, and over 500 percent in the next 10 years.”

The White House Strategy rightly calls for immediate action, emphasizes mid-band and recognizes the importance of both licensed and unlicensed spectrum. The Strategy has four pillars: (1) a near term focus on a spectrum pipeline and the NTIA’s study of five spectrum bands to determine which can be repurposed within 2 years; (2) longer term planning; (3) innovation, access, and management through technology development; and (4) expanding spectrum expertise and awareness.

Last month, Sens. Thune (R-SD) and Cruz (R-TX) introduced a Spectrum Pipeline bill designed to expand commercial access to mid-band spectrum. It requires the NTIA to identify at least 1,250 megahertz of spectrum to be allocated from federal government to non-government use within 2 years and a total of 2,500 megahertz within 5 years. The bill also requires the FCC to allocate additional spectrum for unlicensed services such as Wi-Fi. And the bill renews the FCC’s auction authority, requiring it to auction at least 600 megahertz of spectrum for full power commercial wireless services, including 5G, within 2 years and a total of 1,250 megahertz within 6 years.

Since its inception, the FCC’s spectrum auction process has been a major success. The Stanford economists who won a Nobel Prize for auction theory helped design the FCC’s auction process and auctions have raised over $233B for the US Treasury. The process has put valuable spectrum in the marketplace for the development of key technologies like 5G, producing wide scale consumer and economic benefit.

It’s time for action. More spectrum, particularly spectrum well-suited for commercial deployment and technological development such as mid-band, must be allocated from the government to the marketplace.

No more hesitation – let’s allocate spectrum to the marketplace and win the global competition. That’s a spectacle worth experiencing.