Donald Trump’s push to roll out 5G internet as quickly as possible has sparked a series of disputes over who should get access to parts of the telecoms spectrum, involving groups as large and varied as Facebook, Google, AT&T and National Public Radio.
The Federal Communications Commission has pushed forward with a string of spectrum sales in the past few months as it rushes to fulfil the US president’s pledge to “win the race” to establish superfast internet across the country.
But experts warn that the tangled mesh of different corporate and government claims over what is known as the “Goldilocks” mid-part of the spectrum threatens to delay the rollout, and leave the US trailing China.
Mobile carriers need exclusive access to particular frequencies so they can transmit data without fear of interference. Lower frequencies travel further, while higher ones carry more data — those in the middle are particularly highly sought-after.
In the past, spectrum auctions have delivered bumper proceeds for governments around the world. But as countries race to be the first to roll out 5G nationwide, officials are offering lower prices than ever before, and in China’s case, even giving it out for free.
Paul Triolo, a technology policy analyst at Eurasia Group, said: “The US needs to sort out its use of mid-band frequencies . . . If China is able to deploy at scale midband spectrum and this enables Chinese companies to get faster to deploying applications like autonomous vehicles, that is an advantage for other markets.”
The Trump administration is especially concerned with gaining an advantage in 5G because of the associated technologies that will depend on it, from self-driving cars, to smart devices and remote surgery
But the country is already at a commercial disadvantage because much of the spectrum being used for 5G in other parts of the world is reserved exclusively in the US for government and military use. The Pentagon’s technology advisory board warned this year this was likely to lead to China’s technology becoming dominant instead.
In response, Ajit Pai, the man chosen by Mr Trump to lead the FCC, has been rushing to allocate as much of what is available to 5G and 5G-related services, but has quickly run into opposition from existing users.
One of the most fractious of these disputes is over what should happen to the band around the 6GHz frequency — a debate that has pitted technology companies including Apple, Microsoft, Facebook and Google against others such as Ericsson.
A group of 11 global technology companies is supporting an FCC proposal to let them use the band without a licence for home WiFi, but others, including Ericsson, are worried about possible interference with their existing communications satellites.
A similar public fight has also broken out over the so-called C-Band, which several broadcasters use to upload and download content by satellite, but which the FCC wants to use for 5G. Meanwhile, this year the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association complained that opening up the 24GHz frequency could lead to interference with its weather satellites.
FCC officials say they intend to push ahead with that auction, and that they have agreed data limits that will ensure NOAA and Nasa satellites will remain unaffected. Officials also say they want to resolve the C-Band dispute this autumn, but will not say when they might be able to do the same with the 6GHz issue.
In the meantime, however, Mr Pai insists the US will stay ahead of the global competition.
He said in a statement: “We have more commercial deployments, more 5G subscribers and more spectrum dedicated for 5G than China . . . As the FCC continues to execute its 5G plan, the United States will stay at the forefront of 5G.”―Financial Times