U.S. Senate Commerce Committee Subcommittee on Communications, Technology, Innovation and the Internet, July 23, 2020
The gap between the US and China on mid-band spectrum has been noted. Mid-band frequencies, also called the Goldilocks band, are prized for their technological capabilities to send large amount of data over long distances. China and even Canada are on track to have some 500 MHz of mid-band spectrum deployed (and Japan with 1000 MHz), whereas the US has a scant 350 MHz. As such, S. 1986, SPECTRUM NOW Act sponsored by Chairman Wicker, Ranking Member Schatz, and Senators Moran and Udall has critical importance. Using the Spectrum Relocation Fund, this bill would support federal entities operating on mid-band spectrum to study the feasibility of increasing spectrum efficiency and relocating federally held spectrum or sharing it with commercial users to facilitate the deployment of 5G.
To put the numbers into perspective, consider that the federal government sits on 70 percent of the so-called spectrum “beachfront”, some 2500 MHz, used primarily for radar and radio navigation. The government’s holdings amount to more than four times what America’s five major wireless carriers (T-Mobile, AT&T, Verizon, Dish, and US Cellular) have in mid-band frequencies for 5G. The US is in an existential battle with China for 5G, and it trying to do it on scraps of mid-band spectrum.
5G is the quickest way to equalize the digital divide between urban and rural America, providing the same, if not, superior connectivity than wireline networks. While there is a promise of some more mid-band spectrum in the future, the allocation process for these frequencies, which by rights should be have been a quick, speedy private transaction, was seized by political actors protecting incumbent firms.
In any event, if there was a market-based process to allocate federal spectrum, there would be no need to quibble about the 3.7 to 4.2 MHz, as private actors would have the opportunity to buy, sell, lease, trade, or share the most valuable swath of the airwaves. Simply put, the federal spectrum holders are insulated to the pain caused by the spectrum imbalance. Policymakers have made a choice to prioritize certain federal (notably military) applications above civilian wants and needs. This is not to say military applications are unimportant, but it is a valid policy research question of whether all 2500 MHz is best deployed for radar and radio navigation when some measure of this spectrum could enable over 100 million school children to participate in distance learning during the pandemic.
While no country’s spectrum policy is perfect, the US has driven important successes over the last century. This Committee has been the driving force behind the FCC reforms to liberalize the allocation of commercial spectrum, which has become a model for countries around the world. Reforms include a liberalized allocation process for commercial spectrum, flexible use, competitive bidding to make rights assignments more efficient, and tools and processes to make spectrum use more efficient whether repacking spectrum (a result of the broadcast incentive auction, for example) or dynamic sharing such as in the 3.5 GHz Citizens Broadband Radio Service proceeding. As a result of these and other efforts, the FCC has improved the access, availability, and efficiency of commercial spectrum, without which our wireless economy would not be possible. Over 90 commercial spectrum auctions in the US have delivered over $116 billion to the US Treasury. Wireless spectrum enables the trillion-dollar wireless economy. We now accept the premise that spectrum is a finite resource for which prices and markets can improve their allocation.
If such reforms have improved the outcomes for commercial spectrum, it stands to reason that similar improvements could be driven for federal spectrum. At the very least this would include improving access and availability for federal users, but more largely, better outcomes for the American people. Presently federal spectrum is managed the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) and more specifically, the Interdepartment Radio Advisory Committee (IRAC), which was founded in 1922. While commercial spectrum allocation has been reformed, the management of federal spectrum is essentially unchanged for almost 100 years. It is timely and appropriate to review it.