President Trump has set, as a national priority, the creation of a secure, private-sector driven 5G network. He has also required the federal government to establish a national spectrum strategy that can aid in allocating sufficient spectrum to achieve this national priority. The National Telecommunications & Information Administration (NTIA) is in the process of sifting through comments it received on the issue and has requested that federal spectrum users report on their use of spectrum, both of which NTIA expects to use to develop that strategy.
The bipartisan RAY BAUM’S Act enacted into law last spring reflects Congress’s commitment to push for additional commercial spectrum for 5G development and deployment. RAY BAUM’S Act substantially improved the previous Spectrum Pipeline Act.
The Obama Administration originally committed to locating 500 MHz of spectrum, including both non-federal and federal spectrum, for reallocation to wireless use. The Administration’s 2012 PCAST Report watered down the effort by placing too much emphasis on sharing spectrum between commercial and government users. By the end of the Obama Administration, its 500 MHz goal was not attained, and efforts to locate additional government spectrum bogged down.
Although Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross testified to Congress during his Senate confirmation hearing about the importance of locating government spectrum for potential reallocation, to date there has been insufficient progress.
It is true that NTIA last year identified the 3.45 to 3.55 GHz band as a potential candidate for commercial mobile use. But little more has been said publicly since that announcement was made. From the
analysis, the 3.45 to 3.55 GHz band should be relatively simple to reallocate given very low government use in such band.
The Federal Communications Commission has also initiated a proceeding proposing to allow terrestrial broadband use of the 1675-1680 MHz band, subject to protection of current users. The band currently is allocated to both federal and non-federal users of radiosonde and meteorological space-to-earth services. The FCC's initiation of the rulemaking proceeding is a positive development. Now government users must step up their efforts to relocate from the band in accordance with current planning.
There have been some warning signs that not all federal government users are on board with the reallocation effort. The Department of Defense (DoD), very late in the game, raised concerns about its ability to use upper 37 GHz band frequencies for future, unspecified use, even after such spectrum was auctioned. Only through last minute negotiations between NTIA, on behalf of DoD, and the FCC were procedures enacted to limit DoD’s claim to additional spectrum in the upper 37 GHz band.
In another situation, just as the FCC was set to auction 24 GHz spectrum, two closely related claims by the federal government potentially upset the effort. First, NASA and the Secretary of Commerce urged the FCC to delete a World Radio Conference (WRC) 15 agenda item that would have globally harmonized the 24 GHz band for mobile use, excluding aeronautical mobile. And then federal spectrum users of the adjacent 23 GHz band, together with House of Representatives allies, attempted to stop the 24 GHz auction on the eve of the auction. FCC Chairman Ajit Pai rightfully rejected such efforts and auctioned the spectrum because the Commission had already fully explored the issues and found no evidence of potential interference a year earlier.
And, meanwhile, a federal interagency GPS working group has been slow-rolling Ligado’s efforts to repurpose satellite spectrum for terrestrial mobile use that would be an important part of the national 5G effort. Because of a lack of transparency, the public is left to speculate what is going on.
These not-so-private disputes became very public during a Senate Commerce Committee FCC Oversight hearing on June 12, 2019, when Chairman Pai revealed that one agency had been undermining its 5G efforts “at every turn.” The remark was apparently directed at the Department of Commerce. One incident could be chalked up to bureaucratic miscommunication. But the public airing of inter-governmental disputes is unusual in the history of spectrum coordination efforts. The White House should resolve this situation
in order to achieve the national goal of 5G world leadership, which would bring enormous consumer welfare benefits to Americans.
Notwithstanding the foregoing and despite the consistent bipartisan push to identify and reallocate for commercial use additional government spectrum that currently is inefficiently used, government spectrum users are moving too slowly in the 5G rollout effort. Government occupies some 60 percent of spectrum below 3.7 GHz, which imposes an enormous “opportunity cost” on the U.S. economy. As Free State Foundation scholars indicated in comments to NTIA regarding development of a national spectrum strategy, the federal government should reform its spectrum management practices, including the following principles:
- NTIA Should Issue an Annual Report Calculating the Market Value of Federal Government Spectrum
- The OMB Should Have a Role in Auditing Federal Spectrum Holdings
- The Spectrum Relocation Fund Should Become a Spectrum Incentive Fund
- Agencies Should Be Assessed Spectrum Fees
- Allow Agencies to Use Spectrum Holdings to Offset Budget Appropriations
- Increase the Transparency and Accountability of Government Spectrum Decisions
Whatever the incentives provided, less emphasis should be placed on sharing between non-federal and federal spectrum users. While in some circumstances sharing may be appropriate, inevitably, sharing reduces the available usable spectrum and the flexibility and reliability that commercial users need to deploy services that consumers want. Sharing increases commercial user costs, reduces efficient operations, and exposes networks to security vulnerabilities.
RAY BAUM’S Act required the FCC, in collaboration with NTIA, to issue a report on whether government should be allowed access to commercial spectrum, termed “bidirectional sharing.” The vast majority of the comments in that docket indicate that government access to commercial spectrum can be addressed through existing mechanisms, such as contracts and leasing arrangements. One defense industry commenter, in contrast, argued that DoD needs to access spectrum that is deployed for commercial use to gain the benefit of economies of scale to obtain lower-priced equipment and commercial cybersecurity software. I think both the FCC and the NTIA must consider whether government actually needs access to additional commercial spectrum on an exclusive basis, or whether limited emergency use based on contracts or leases would adequately meet government needs. If government believes that these existing arrangements are insufficient, it should publicly state the shortcomings of such arrangements so that the FCC and NTIA can determine whether a workable compromise can be derived without chilling new private investment.
If the U.S. is going to attain world leadership in 5G, government spectrum users must step up to make “the worst of times” more like the “best of times.”
* Gregory J. Vogt is a Visiting Fellow of the Free State Foundation, an independent, nonpartisan free market-oriented think tank located in Rockville, Maryland.
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