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America’s Spectrum Policy: A roadmap for action in 2024

Over the past year America’s spectrum policy faced an unprecedented set of challenges that jeopardize America’s 5G leadership and Americans’ ability to reap all of the economic and geopolitical benefits of a dynamic mobile broadband network and the ecosystems it supports. To overcome those challenges, 2024 must be a year of action for US policymakers if we are to maintain our global competitiveness, meet rapidly increasing consumer demand, and drive the innovation and growth we all want in the United States. Specifically, America’s wireless future hinges on:

Full Roadmap
Congress restoring FCC auction authority with a forward-looking and comprehensive pipeline of future auctions for 5G and beyond.

NTIA publishing a robust National Spectrum Strategy Implementation Plan detailing clear targets for future full-power auctions, an expedited two-year study schedule, and clarification that NTIA will lead and manage the new studies.

The US resolving the current spectrum imbalance and quickly providing licensed commercial access to the lower 3 GHz band, correcting the faulty assumptions and incomplete scope of the prior government study.

The US reasserting its lead on the global stage in driving 5G-friendly access to the 7/8 GHz band to help close our nation’s widening deficit of licensed spectrum compared to other countries, create economies of scale with upper 6 GHz licensed wireless deployments around the world, and ensure that the US leads in wireless technologies.

The Wireless Industry Is Investing in Jobs, Innovation, Competition and Closing the Digital Divide.

2023 saw another groundbreaking year for wireless investment and innovation in the United States, unlocking new jobs and ever-improving wireless service. Following another year of record industry investment, wireless broadband speeds are up 42 percent year-over-year—and now twice as fast as 2021—while demand for mobile broadband continues to surge, with Ericsson reporting nearly 40 percent growth in just 2023. For consumers that means faster speeds, more data, and always competitive pricing.

We also saw 5G innovation make a real impact across industries and sectors of our economy. Last year I was thrilled to meet American entrepreneurs using 5G to help reinvent education, public safety, agriculture, transportation, energy and so much more. Wireless has always been key to America’s economic competitiveness—our industry supports 4.5 million jobs and adds more than $825 billion to the economy each year. With 5G we’re seeing how wireless can make every American industry more competitive on the global stage. We expect an additional 4.5M new American jobs this decade because of 5G innovation and deployment.

I also love seeing the competitive and pro-consumer impact of 5G home broadband, both in terms of closing the digital divide and providing real home broadband competition in many communities for the first time. In fact, one out of every five 5G home broadband customers are first time broadband subscribers, underscoring 5G’s ability to help close the digital divide. The key to 5G home broadband doing even more is spectrum access. A key study showed that if wireless operators had sufficient spectrum capacity, 5G home broadband could drive down cable broadband pricing, resulting in $8.1 billion in consumer savings.

Taken together, it is readily apparent we need more licensed spectrum to keep delivering for American consumers. BCG warned “the lack of a pipeline of full-power, licensed spectrum for 5G is a growing concern.” It is also well documented that the US spectrum deficit is only growing: we will need nearly 1,500 megahertz of licensed spectrum just to meet consumer demand in the US over the next ten years. In order to provide the services that consumers desire, large blocks of contiguous spectrum are key.

That is why 2023 was a setback for the United States—America’s spectrum policy failed to keep pace with how Americans use wireless. The positive movement we saw in the last days of 2023, however, offers an opportunity for decisive action this year.

There Is a Clear Consensus that Wireless Leadership Is Key to our Global Competitiveness.
Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo said it best: “[E]conomic competitiveness is national security, and making sure we have enough spectrum available for private sector innovation and 5G expansion is national security.” We saw the experts at CSIS repeatedly make the case that our national and collective global security is very much at risk given US inaction on spectrum policy. Senator Ted Cruz has rightly concluded, “We need a real mid-band spectrum pipeline so that the US can dominate in 5G and not fall behind our adversaries.” As CSIS and others have noted, China has clear aspirations to drive economic growth and foreign influence through a mid-band spectrum advantage that only grew more in 2023. China acted on mid-band while the US merely debated it.

Encouragingly, the White House has echoed this sentiment. National Economic Council Director Lael Brainard concluded, “reliable access to spectrum is essential to innovation here in the US, to economic progress, to competitiveness, and, of course, national security.” Senior Republican leaders have as well. House Energy & Commerce Chair Cathy McMorris Rodgers forcefully describes spectrum as a “shared priority … essential to maintain[ing] American leadership in next generation wireless technology.” We need our actions to meet this moment for our future global competitiveness. We have no time to spare.

There Is Unanimous and Bipartisan Support for Restoring FCC Auction Authority.
We somehow start 2024 with the FCC still lacking spectrum auction authority, hamstringing the ability of the agency and the industry to move forward. House Energy & Commerce Ranking Member Frank Pallone expressed that he is “extremely disappointed that Congress has still not reauthorized the FCC spectrum auction authority.” I share his disappointment, and agree fully with FCC Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel that “[w]e badly need Congress to restore the agency’s spectrum auction authority, because it is an essential tool for our wireless leadership and success.” She’s right. We lost too much of last year delaying on something for which there is significant bipartisan support and clear-cut commercial need.

I’m hopeful that the much-needed 5G Sale Act just signed by the President provides a jumping off point for action and was heartened to see Senate Commerce Chair Maria Cantwell’s comments last week expressing optimism at breaking the spectrum logjam. We stand ready to help restore authority with a clear pipeline of future auctions for 5G and beyond. To that end, Senators Cruz and Thune have recently provided a viable and thoughtful path forward that would extend authority and provide certainty as to the amount of future full-power 5G spectrum that will be available. FCC Chairwoman Rosenworcel has also made clear her intent to start auctioning spectrum again if she has the authority. We need action to make that happen as expeditiously as possible.

NTIA Has Less than Two Years to Get the U.S. Back on Track.
2023 was the first year since 2016 that we did not have a spectrum auction, and there are no auctions planned for the foreseeable future. Each year without an auction, or even an auction on the horizon, digs the US deeper into a hole. Given the exponential growth in consumer use and the aggressive efforts to allocate spectrum overseas by both allies and adversaries, I agree fully with FCC Commissioner Carr that “we are behind, and we need to catch up.” I also echo his calls for urgency in now identifying specific bands for auction with a defined schedule. The challenge is, as Accenture has detailed, the federal government controls the lion’s share of key 5G mid-band spectrum bands, or at least those that haven’t already been allocated to unlicensed.

That is why the Administration’s National Spectrum Strategy is such a key building block. House Energy & Commerce Subcommittee Chairman Bob Latta rightly calls the Strategy “a good first step, adding that “we must be aggressive in identifying a spectrum pipeline to maintain US wireless leadership.” It goes without saying that studies are not auctions, so I was heartened to see NTIA Administrator Davidson conclude, “Now, the big work is executing those studies, making sure that we’re actually putting spectrum into the pipeline.” We must do just that.

Over the course of the next two months the administration will develop an implementation plan to make that strategy a reality, consistent with the Presidential Memorandum on Spectrum Policy. It’s a unique opportunity to get back on track and reaffirm our commitment to the types of policies that made America the leader in wireless and the world’s innovation hub. That plan must affirm NTIA’s role as the government’s lead agency on spectrum policy and their leadership and management of future spectrum studies. Two of the Strategy’s bands stand out and should be prioritized given their clear suitability for 5G services, global harmonization potential, and advantageous propagation characteristics.

Catching Up on Lower 3 GHz. The stark reality is that over the last two years we missed an opportunity to commercialize the lower 3 GHz in a manner that safeguards the military’s mission-critical functions. Failing to do that has real consequences for our ability to serve customers and drive innovation and new jobs. We commend Administrator Davidson’s comments that NTIA will “redouble our efforts,” and “look at whether there’s possibility of relocating some systems.” At the same time, it is frustrating that we are only doing that now given Congress’s clear direction in the Infrastructure Act to do just that two years ago. It is well-documented that the prior study was deeply flawed in failing to consider tried and true sharing options like segmentation, future military technology plans, or real-world interference conditions. Practically speaking, NTIA’s new study is unfortunately late before it even starts, highlighting the need for decisive action. What is worse, while we stalled, we saw over 30 countries jump ahead in using 3.3-3.45 GHz for advanced wireless services alongside the same systems the Pentagon uses domestically. It is noteworthy that none of those other countries are using untested or experimental dynamic sharing regimes like CBRS to provide access to this band, underscoring our need to move forward with full-power solutions ready for rapid deployment to help us catch up quickly.

Leading the World on 7/8 GHz. In Dubai at WRC, I saw first-hand the urgency with which nations across the world are moving to identify more spectrum for 5G without the United States. There was global progress on the future use of the 4 GHz, 6 GHz, 10 GHz and 14 GHz bands even over US objections. For example, more than half the world—Europe, Africa, the Middle East, much of the Asia-Pacific region, and Mexico and Brazil in our region—is moving forward to license the top half of the 6 GHz band, rejecting the US view to make the full 1200 megahertz of that band available only for unlicensed. This means these countries will have an additional 600 megahertz of harmonized prime mid-band spectrum to support their 5G industries and develop emerging technology that is not available to use here at home because of US spectrum policy that tips way too far in favor of unlicensed access. The risk now of spectrum isolation is real, making the US a wireless technology island, cutting us off from the benefits of harmonization and diminishing our global influence. All of this leaves the 7/8 GHz band as the United States’ only opportunity for leadership in terms of providing 5G-friendly mid-band spectrum. Encouragingly, the National Spectrum Strategy identified this band for study, and the world identified it for future harmonization at WRC-27. The US already leads the world on unlicensed access–this is our opportunity to lead in both licensed and unlicensed, define an ecosystem, and ensure that wireless innovation is US-led for a generation to come.

I’m hopeful the momentum from last year can now carry over to real action on spectrum in 2024. The Administration’s strategy got a lot of things right and bipartisan calls for auction authority and a spectrum pipeline are welcome. Now it’s time to dig in and finish the job. When we do, our networks and our nation will be stronger for it.

CT Bureau

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