The race to 5G is a digital arms race
The economic benefits of 5G are well known, and it’s well accepted that American leadership in 5G and wireless communications is critical to spur technological innovation at home.
But China has made the race to 5G just as much an economic and militaristic arms race. Its strategy? Lead in spectrum allocation to give its own companies a competitive advantage and flood the markets with its equipment. Chinese spies have strategically used its 5G networks to surveil citizens in countries where its state-sponsored companies, like Huawei or ZTE, have deployed systems, as they did in Australia.
A decade ago, China had the lead. It had allocated over 300 megahertz of mid-band spectrum for 5G and was constructing new cell sites at a rate of 460 per day. In the United States, we had no mid-band spectrum for 5G, and we were averaging only three sites per day. Even worse, Chinese equipment found its ways into our own networks.
Five years ago, things began to turn around. Congress passed the MOBILE NOW Act in 2018, which, in part, created a spectrum pipeline for commercial 5G use. In response, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) created a 5G FAST Plan and, at nearly the speed of 5G, opened up more than six gigahertz of spectrum for licensed 5G services, including more than 600 megahertz of mid-band spectrum to auction to augment our 5G capacities.
The FCC didn’t stop there. It unanimously opened more than 1,000 megahertz of unlicensed spectrum in the 5.9 GHz and 6 GHz bands. These unlicensed frequencies are why Wi-Fi keeps getting better and better, and are what let new entrants, whether they be small like Nextlink Internet or large like Charter, compete directly with traditional carriers such as T-Mobile.
The results of all this work? U.S. carriers started providing actual 5G commercial offerings and have led the world in 5G for the past four years. And the new spectrum opportunities yielded added competition that has put more money in consumers’ pockets by reducing the price of wireless services.
And to be clear, we were still going strong even with the FCC changing hands with the new administration in 2020. FCC Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel has carried out the 5G FAST Plan by auctioning off more mid-band spectrum in the 2.5 GHz and 3.45 GHz bands over the past two years.
But now, in December 2022, we face new challenges. After the recent mid-band auctions, the spectrum pipeline is dry. There may be no 5G auction in 2023 or in the years thereafter unless the pipeline is refilled. Just as bad, the FCC’s authority to hold an auction is set to expire next week. Without congressional reauthorization, the FCC’s main tool to win the race to 5G is about to disappear.
And while we dither, China gains more ground in the race to 5G. China has far more mid-band spectrum ready and available to licensed 5G service. And China is adding 2.22 million 5G base stations in its market and is already working on 6G capabilities.
To be blunt, if we cannot get our act together and follow an all-of-the-above spectrum strategy, we cede the race to 5G and even 6G to China. Full stop.
We as Americans must realize that the race to 5G begins here. When we take a stand against China, so does the world. When we banned federal funding for Huawei and ZTE and then required carriers to rip out and replace their equipment, the European Union, Australia, Canada and New Zealand banned them as well. And other countries, from Latin America to Southeast Asia to Africa, are considering following suit.
Thankfully, we already know the solutions.
The House of Representatives has been working on the bipartisan Spectrum Innovation Act for almost two years and passed it without dissent this past summer. The Act would restart the spectrum pipeline with an auction of 350 megahertz of mid-band spectrum for 5G, reauthorize the FCC’s spectrum auction authority and require studies on how to repurpose underused bands, like the 7 GHz band. Passing it as is should be a political no-brainer.
Similarly, the FCC needs to accelerate its work to improve unlicensed use of the 5.9 GHz and 6 GHz bands. With a pending court remand and pending petitions to reduce the cost and increase the usability of each band, it’s up to the FCC to make sure that Wi-Fi and other unlicensed operations can live up to their full potential and redound to the benefit of American families.
Getting spectrum policy right is often hard. That’s not true here. We have the solutions and the ability to win the 5G digital arms race. Congress and the FCC need to get this done so that America can continue to lead the free world in wireless innovation.
Joel Thayer is president of the Digital Progress Institute and a Washington-based telecom and tech attorney.