Congress Blog

Nationalization of 5G is not the way forward

The views expressed by contributors are their own and not the view of The Hill

America is on the verge of an enormous leap toward fifth generation (5G) technology, promising wireless broadband speeds more than ten times greater than what current cellular networks have to offer. 5G will unleash a new generation of innovation, from self-driving cars to remote surgery, and potentially add $900 billion to the U.S. gross domestic product.

This powerful infrastructure requires spectrum - a critically important and finite resource. Given all its uses, spectrum allocation is a hotly debated topic in Washington, but one thing is clear: to win the global race to 5G, we must make more spectrum available - especially in the mid-band.

While Cabinet-level departments, independent agencies, and congressional committees push for more studies and requests for information, our adversaries have already put their own strategies to work.

The stakes are enormous in the global race to 5G, and the clock is ticking.

Unfortunately, there are some who believe the only way to confront our adversaries is to act like them by nationalizing 5G and allocating precious spectrum to support a nationalized network. Proponents argue that government-centric, bureaucratically-controlled solutions will lead to innovation. I want to be unequivocally clear: Nationalization of 5G is not the way forward.

Others argue for sharing arrangements in which a single company holds the leases binding commercial mobile carriers who seek access to spectrum bands held by the Department of Defense. This arrangement - putting all resources in the hands of a government-backed wholesaler, to be hawked to a captive market - is simply nationalization by another name. Some in Washington champion this shortsighted scheme as a method for expediting the 5G rollout, but what it will actually do is rob the American taxpayer.

Consider the following example of another sharing model recently attempted between the Department of Defense and industry. The Citizens Broadband Radio Service auction took eight years to materialize and in the end, grossed $4.58 billion. Some have heralded that number as a marker for success, but this argument falls apart when you consider that very same spectrum could have grossed between $20-50 billion if it had been exclusively licensed.

What this means is that mid-band spectrum - premium real estate for 5G - was lost to a time consuming, complicated, experimental, and untested model that numerous wireless providers deemed unusable. It also means taxpayers lost literally billions of dollars that could have been allocated to deficit reduction. With the national debt at $26.7 trillion and climbing, now is not the time to sell the American taxpayer short when commercial wireless carriers willingly pay for exclusive spectrum licenses.

Attempting to win the race to 5G using nationalization or spectrum sharing will only delay and needlessly complicate our transition to a next-generation telecommunications infrastructure. We need exclusively licensed spectrum, specifically in the mid-band, and we need it now. America is in the midst of a long-term strategic and technological competition involving 5G, artificial intelligence, big data and quantum computing. We cannot win this competition by emulating our adversaries.

Instead, America can win the race to 5G just as we won the race to 4G: by cutting through the static, and relying on private sector investment and innovation.

Blackburn is the junior senator from Tennessee and is a member of the Senate Commerce Committee.

Outbrain