Joel Thayer: No 5G Spectrum Means No Digital Future

The 5G war is on and there’s a lot of concern about the U.S. position vis-a-vis China.

Joel Thayer: No 5G Spectrum Means No Digital Future
The author of this Expert Opinion is Joel Thayer, president of the Digital Progress Institute.

The White House just released its national spectrum strategy, and it couldn’t be more timely. The 5G war is on and there’s a lot of concern about the U.S.’s position vis-a-vis China’s.

Given that we are in the midst of World Radio Conference—the international conference that decides how we structure global 5G networks–an assessment of where we are in relation to spectrum allocation and what we need to do to secure our dominant position in the race to 5G becomes all the more important.

Spectrum, for the unfamiliar, is the reason you are able to read this article from a mobile device. It is the invisible real estate that allows 5G networks to transition services, like autonomous vehicles, precision agriculture, and even artificial intelligence, from science fiction into today’s reality.

In no uncertain terms, without spectrum, there is no mobile revolution. Think about every device that relies on wireless networks. Your smartphone, laptop, smartwatch, Fitbit, and Airtags are just some of the products fueled by spectrum. Without spectrum, they won’t work.

And for nearly a decade, we have dominated the race to 5G. We did so, because we made 5G a national priority and coordinated an interagency effort to build out 5G networks. And it worked. By 2020, we led the world on 5G speeds and the procurement and distribution of valuable spectrum.

The U.S. is in a rebuilding year

If we were an NFL team, we were Tom Brady’s New England Patriots.

But, akin to the Patriots’ 2023 season, we’re in a rebuilding year. We have no new high-powered mid-band spectrum in the pipeline and some of the spectrum we do have available is getting bogged down due to unnecessary intergovernmental fighting.

Even if we did, it would be incredibly hard to get the spectrum out into the market expeditiously because Congress allowed the Federal Communications Commission’s spectrum auction authority to lapse—something that had never before happened since Congress granted it in the 1990s. This lapse of authority has not just stalled new spectrum from coming into the market but has also prevented the FCC from releasing nearly 8,000 licenses of valuable 2.5 GigaHertz (GHz) mid-band spectrum purchased last year.

Conservative estimates show that 5G must be able to support the data transmissions of 1 million devices for every third of a mile. And we expect there to be 41.6 billion devices online in less than two years. Our networks won’t be able to handle that onslaught.

What’s more, the advent of AI will require even more data transmissions over our 5G networks and will inevitably strain them. Without a refilled spectrum pipeline, data-driven applications—like AI—will become a pipedream for the U.S.

Worse, this opens the door for China to pick up its pace on 5G and 6G. Much of what China is doing in spectrum and deployment are to position itself to win in 6G. How? Because 6G builds on 5G, much like 5G built on 4G/LTE. Hence, if China wins here, 6G networks will be built on their 5G foundation.

We need to keep up our pace.

The U.S. is constrained by the lack of spectrum auction authority

But here’s the rub, the Administration is constrained in what it can do to open up new bands and get spectrum out into the market quickly.

For example, the FCC has said repeatedly that it won’t release spectrum it has already auctioned, specifically in the 2.5 GHz band, without its auction authority being reauthorized.

But you know what branch of government isn’t constrained? Congress.

And there’s some good news on that front. Sen. John Kennedy’s 5G Spectrum Authority Licensing Enforcement (SALE) Act unanimously passed a rollcall vote in the Senate. The SALE Act would allow the FCC to move forward on releasing those 8,000 2.5 GHz licenses, which allows T-Mobile to enhance its existing 5G networks. This action alone creates more competition in 5G offerings, which inevitably lowers the price for consumers.

But more must done!

With the National Spectrum Strategy, the Administration has given Congress a path forward to turn our franchise around. The Administration’s plan identifies the lower 3 GHz and the 7-8 GHz bands as primary contenders for a strong pipeline of spectrum for private sector use—bands Congress itself identified in last year’s draft of the bipartisan Spectrum Innovation Act.

Better yet, the strategy does not foreclose looking at less controversial mid-band spectrum—particularly bands that build on mid-band spectrum already in the market, like in 4.4-4.9 GHz range. Using this spectrum can create a more contiguous band of 5G mid-band spectrum to handle the immense data transmissions we’ll see from AI.

Lastly, Congress needs to reauthorize the FCC’s spectrum auction authority to ensure we can get this spectrum into the market expeditiously.

Although we won’t likely auction off any new spectrum in the next year—just as the Patriots will not make the playoffs, we can use this as a teachable moment to rebuild and strengthen our networks. It would behoove Congress to move fast because while we twiddle our thumbs, China continues to build.

Joel Thayer is president of the Digital Progress Institute and an attorney based in Washington, D.C. The Digital Progress Institute is a nonprofit seeking to bridge the policy divide between telecom and tech through bipartisan consensus. This piece is exclusive to Broadband Breakfast.

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