Spectrum auction authority must be extended
One of the federal government’s most successful policies has been the auction of spectrum. Since 1994, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has held 111 auctions that have generated more than $258 billion in net proceeds for the U.S. Treasury. The spectrum made available through these auctions has been critical to the $1.9 trillion that the private sector has invested in broadband since the passage of the Telecommunications Act of 1996, with the wireless industry alone cumulatively investing more than $600 billion.
Some spectrum auction proceeds have been used to fund special projects like FirstNet, which was created in 2012 to operate and improve the nation’s first secure and interoperable wireless public safety broadband network. FCC Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel has recommended that some future auction proceeds should be used to help pay for Next-Generation 911 services, which support 911 call centers across the country with voice, text, data and video communications.
But unless Congress acts, the FCC’s authority to auction spectrum will expire on Sept. 30, 2022. The first step to reauthorize this authority occurred on June 15, 2022, when the House Energy and Commerce Communications and Technology Subcommittee reported three bills favorably to the full committee. The bills would extend the current auction authority to March 31, 2024, increase the frequencies available in the 3.1-3.45 GHz band, and facilitate the sharing of spectrum between federal and non-federal entities. The committee should move quickly to get these bills to the floor and over to the Senate, as the House has only 26 legislative days and the Senate has only 47 legislative days left until the November elections.
Once the FCC’s authority is reauthorized, the allocation of spectrum must continue to be balanced between licensed and unlicensed use. The deployment of 5G through licensed spectrum (noting that 6G is already in development) offers faster transmission speeds with lower latency or delays from point to point. This use of spectrum enhances educational opportunities, telemedicine, and automotive safety, among many other benefits, while providing increased cybersecurity and data protection capabilities. Transmission of 5G spectrum by small cells requires more spectrum than cell towers or similar points of transmission, and while 5G technology uses low-band, mid-band, and millimeter wave high-band spectrum, increasing the availability of mid-band spectrum for 5G is important for the U.S. to maintain it global leadership status.
Unlicensed spectrum provides the bridge to connect many devices to the new 5G networks that allow for increased connectivity using either Wi-Fi or Bluetooth technologies. A January 2022 Consumer Technology Association report estimated that the economic value of Wi-Fi and other unlicensed devices is $98.5 billion annually just from the sale of new devices. These devices include wearable health monitoring devices, home security systems, and devices that monitor and adjust lighting, heating, and cooling, with many others under development.
A Feb. 22, 2022, GSMA Intelligence report cited the socio-economic benefits of creating more 5G networks across the country for education, health care, manufacturing, and public administration. The report noted that 5G technology is expected to increase the global gross domestic product by $960 billion by 2030, with mid-band spectrum producing almost 65 percent of overall socio-economic value through 5G. Unless more mid-band spectrum is allocated, up to 40 percent of those expected benefits will be lost.
Combining both unlicensed spectrum devices with licensed spectrum for 5G deployment will enable the U.S. to remain the global leader in telecommunications. This requires a smart, forward-thinking spectrum policy.
It also requires the elimination of federal agency barriers to deploying next generation technology, like the Department of Transportation tried to do with both the c-band spectrum and the 5.9 GHz spectrum band. On Feb. 15, 2022, the FCC and the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) announced the creation of the Spectrum Coordination Initiative. The memorandum of understanding (MOU) between the two agencies is the start of a process of coordinating and evaluating federal spectrum allocations that is long overdue. The FCC and NTIA should encourage other agencies to join the MOU to ensure that the federal government does not impede the release of sufficient spectrum for future technological advances like 6G wireless technology and Wi-Fi 6.0.
To achieve the socio-economic benefits that 5G and other new technologies will bring, the FCC must be enabled to create a balanced spectrum pipeline that meets the needs of both licensed and unlicensed spectrum. The first step is for Congress to quickly pass legislation to reauthorize the FCC’s auction authority before it expires on Sept. 30, 2022.
Deborah Collier is Citizens Against Government Waste Vice President for Policy and Government Affairs.