The FCC should speed up in the race for 5G
© Greg Nash

The FCC earlier this month announced its plans to offer up a large swath of radio spectrum for “unlicensed use,” meaning any company or individual could operate on it. This proposal would benefit well-connected big tech companies and put a hurdle in America’s way in the race for 5G supremacy. At a time when China is competing against us for 5G and a host of other industries, and revealing their regime’s top-to-bottom corruption to the world, now is not the time to let them take a foothold in this critical race.

Here’s what the FCC is planning: they are trying to open up what’s called the “6 GHz” band, a large 1200 MHz swath of radio spectrum. This portion of the spectrum is currently used by news-gathering services, telecommunications providers, and other infrastructure services. The FCC’s proposal would open it up for unlicensed use, which means companies and technologies would not obtain exclusive use of any band or have to pay for licenses from the government. 

The plan is supported by giants like Amazon, Apple, and Google, who all hope to expand Wi-Fi into the spectrum and reap a profit from the new technology known as “Wi-Fi 6” — a promising new standard that would jumpstart wireless speeds. But the spectrum is also critical for 5G deployment in the U.S. Unlike Wi-Fi, 5G needs clear channels with little interference in order to work well. To make that happen, cell carriers need spectrum licenses — just like FM radio stations need licenses to avoid overlap.

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The FCC/Wi-Fi lobby’s unlicensed approach has a point. The U.S. is pushing the limits of the internet in every way, and to keep up we need to ensure there is enough spectrum available to upgrade the nation’s local wireless systems. The problem is that their approach favors one wireless category over another, helping Wi-Fi at the expense of 5G. Instead of picking winners and losers, the FCC should either split the spectrum between unlicensed and licensed spectrum or open the whole band up for auction and let the Wi-Fi lobby put its money where its mouth is.

The government effectively owns and operates radio spectrum, and just like any corporation, the government should work to make sure they get the highest return on investment they can while promoting the economy. A public auction like the current C-Band one would allow 5G providers, who need exclusive use of frequencies to avoid congestion, to bid to use the spectrum — and they’re willing to pay billions of dollars. That’s money that could be deployed to open up even larger swaths of spectrum in the future.

In an auction, each group, including cell carriers looking to expand 5G, tech companies hoping to expand Wi-Fi, and many others, would bid for the rights to use certain frequencies. This would not only ensure the most efficient, profitable, and fair allocation of resources, but it would put billions in the coffers of the federal government, which could be sent back to taxpayers or used for more infrastructure projects. In addition, the FCC could keep part of the spectrum open for other uses.

But big tech firms don’t want to share, and they don’t want to pay. If the new Wi-Fi 6 standard is really as valuable as Big Tech says it is, there’s nothing stopping them from buying licenses for it — and giving something back to the taxpayers.

The unlicensed approach isn’t just a boon to big tech — it would also set us back in the technology race against China. Effective 5G will require strong, uninterrupted signal. China understands this approach and the importance of 5G all too well. While the FCC has planned the first mid-band auctions for 5G later this year — that’s the band most critical for 5G — China started allocating the band two years ago.

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That should worry every American, not just tech geeks. 5G is critical for both national security and international competition. Whatever country fully implements 5G first will get a giant economic and military boost. New revelations in the last several years have exposed how dangerous China is for the U.S. and the world. The country has covered up the coronavirus and lied about its rate of disease, pursued economic warfare against the U.S., and expanded its list of horrific human rights abuses. It is unacceptable to allow them to get ahead of us. Period.

This is a critical moment for America’s future. We should be using every tactic in our playbook to rebuild our economy and remain globally competitive, particularly by encouraging rapid development of 5G. Instead, the FCC is going to allow any company with a router to take up the airwaves for free. They should take a second look at their proposal and split the band between licensed and unlicensed. It would increase the space available to 5G several times over and leave enough room for other emerging technologies. Now is the time to speed ahead in the 5G race against China — not to run in place.

Jessica Anderson is executive director of Heritage Action for America.