Poor 5G spectrum management undermines privacy rights and US national security

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The squabble over 5G spectrum that is pitting the FAA and airline industry against the FCC and wireless carriers is indicative of a broader failure by the United States to protect the digital access and privacy rights of its citizens.

During my time in the White House as senior director for strategic planning on the National Security Council (NSC), I raised this issue as an imminent threat to our national sovereignty and critical infrastructure. Treating 5G electromagnetic spectrum as real estate to be auctioned off to the highest bidder robs the American people of what should be administered as a common good.

Compare how we squander spectrum in the U.S. to President Dwight Eisenhower’s approach to building the Interstate Highway System (IHS) in the 1950s. The principal aim of the IHS project was to provide the means to quickly evacuate cities in the event of a nuclear attack. It also served as a conduit for commercial transportation and enabled workers to commute from longer distances. We didn’t create one highway system for the military and another for civilians and businesses; we invested in a single, shared resource.

The same should hold true for America’s information superhighway. While the term may seem antiquated, its potential is as real as when ARPANET was created in the 1960s as a Pentagon-funded project to allow computers at military research institutions to communicate over phone lines. Once again, what was devised as a national defense initiative became a public utility that formed the underpinnings of today’s Internet.

The problem with the evolution of the internet is that we now have multiple privatized, often incompatible, inefficient digital traffic lanes that are managed purely for profit. This has created a digital traffic jam — a toll road to bad service — as the U.S. public pays among the highest wireless subscription rates in the world for some of the slowest data speeds. By “selling” something as ephemeral as spectrum, the U.S. government is disincentivizing the telecoms industry from sharing, even when a particular slice of spectrum may sit idle for 90 percent of the time.

The airline industry’s apoplectic response to the launch of 5G service near their airports arose from concerns that C-band frequencies could interfere with radio altimeters and compromise the ability of pilots to safely land aircraft. It also showcased a perfect storm that’s being driven by 5G spectrum hoarding, a failure by the aviation industry to innovate, and political stasis in Washington D.C. 

As a former B2 bomber pilot, I’ve witnessed how a lack of innovation forced the airline industry to retain a rigid hub-and-spoke model where aircraft routes and altitude are “controlled” for collision avoidance but lack the inherent intelligence to safely route themselves.

Smart, intuitive aircraft require communal spectrum, edge computing and artificial intelligence technology that allows vehicles in the air — and on land — to communicate with each other in real time and take appropriate action. Pooled frequency bands and time slicing allow radio wave forms to be allocated to multiple users and could usher in new applications, as other countries are demonstrating. Despite — or perhaps because of — its authoritarian political doctrine, China understands the utility of shared spectrum, which is helping it open an even bigger lead in the race to 5G deployment. So do Singapore and the United Arab Emirates, the latter of which is leaning into the future with a plan to deploy a fleet of autonomous air taxis as early as this year that will rely, in part, on spectrum sharing.

The challenge for the U.S. is the institutionalized nature of how we license and manage spectrum. To effect change will take strong and focused leadership — not only from the U.S. government but through a deep collaboration between public and private entities, including wireless service providers.

Electromagnetic spectrum is owned by the American people. It should not be sold as a commodity on the open market.

That was the position I took while working at the White House NSC.

To demonstrate how volatile an opinion this is, the plan I created advocated for a public-private partnership that shares and taxes spectrum while hardening our exposed wireless infrastructure and securing our data. The mechanism as proposed would have created trillions of new dollars in AI-driven productivity — more than enough to deliver a profitable return on the wireless service industry’s legacy investments. Instead, my report was leaked to the media and mischaracterized in a damaging way by falsely claiming my intent was to “nationalize” America’s 5G network. This couldn’t be further from the truth, and in fact undermined the very goal of fielding a secure, resilient communications and computing infrastructure that would better protect our citizens and our troops.

It’s not too late for government and industry to collaborate on a solution that spurs economic growth, enhances national security and gives the American public the ability to see and understand how their digital information acts and is acted upon once it is released and transmitted. But America is on the edge of a precipice. We can jump into the information age today by investing in the technology needed to compete in an economy defined by AI and autonomy or continue falling behind.

Brig. Gen. Robert S. Spalding (USAF Ret.), is a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute, focusing on U.S.-China relations, economic and national security, and the Asia-Pacific military balance. He is the former White House National Security Council senior director for strategic planning and served in senior positions of strategy and diplomacy within the Defense and State Departments for more than 26 years. He is also the founder and CEO of SEMPRE, which provides secure, private 5G. He is the author of the book, “Stealth War: How China Took Over While America’s Elite Slept.”

Tags 5G C-band spectrum Electromagnetic spectrum public good public ownership public resource Spectrum auctions Technology Telecommunications Wireless networking

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