US Dominance in 5G Relies on Rapid Expansion of Spectrum
As the world continues its fight to contain the spread of the coronavirus pandemic, another fight is silently brewing in the background. That’s the race for 5G. And while America is in the running, if we don’t take swift action to open up commercial access to mid-band spectrum, then there’s a chance the country falls behind and loses out on the benefits from the technology.
The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has taken a lot of action to close the gap in the race against countries like Japan and China, but if the United States truly wants to outpace its competitors, there is more work to be done. In particular, significantly expanding licensed spectrum in the 3 GHz range would boost the U.S. into first while providing numerous benefits to its citizens.
Mid-band spectrum will play a crucial role in developing 5G networks, as that particular range offers a nice blend between capacity and range the signals can travel. A portion of the spectrum has been identified as a priority for 5G deployment, and many nations have expedited deploying 5G to this desirable range. One of the major benefits of using this spectrum is it allows for device and network equipment managers to work to develop a more seamless and globally integrated network, which would significantly reduce the costs of deploying 5G as well as costs to the consumer.
The FCC has two planned auctions this year for 3.5 and 3.7 GHz bands, opening up 350 megahertz of spectrum for usage. While this may sound fairly significant, a study by Analysys Mason shows it’s still subpar by comparison against other nations in the race. For example, South Korea has dedicated 600 megahertz towards this effort, nearly twice as much as the US. Meanwhile, Japan has dedicated 1000 megahertz of mid-band spectrum — nearly 3 times as much as the US is dedicating. While the FCC’s efforts are a great step in the right direction, they need to be doubled just to keep pace with the rest of the world.
One way the FCC could achieve this is by opening the lower range of the mid-band spectrum for commercial use. One roadblock to achieving this goal right now lies in the fact that much of the spectrum in the 3-4GHz range is being used by federal government agencies, particularly the Department of Defense, and federal agencies use all of the spectrum between 3.1 - 3.55 GHz. This is problematic considering this is the band being targeted as ideal for 5G development. Reallocating as little as 250 megahertz of spectrum towards commercial use in that band would immediately allow the United States to leap-frog its competitors.
An added benefit of expanding access to the mid-band spectrum is the overwhelmingly positive impact it would have on the American economy. When America was the first to 4G, it added over $100 billion to national GDP. Pursuing an aggressive agenda to open up mid-band spectrum for 5G would expand the US economy by as much as $274 billion dollars and could add 1.3 million jobs to the market.
An additional benefit of being a leader in 5G that cannot be overstated are the returns the country could experience in other sectors of the economy that gain access to a more powerful technology.
For example, the Internet of Things industry would blossom with the arrival of 5G. With increased speeds and reliability, IoT devices will be able to communicate and share data rapidly. 5G would lead to more stable and reliable networks, which are critical for devices like locks or security cameras, which rely on real time updates.
In the autonomous vehicle industry, 5G is a big step in empowering the technology from being a concept to more of a reality. It would allow for significantly faster communications between cars on the road, which would allow for an increased capacity of cars on the road and improve the status of the infrastructure in the U.S. Additionally, the increased safety from incorporating autonomous vehicles onto the road will go a long way in reducing the total number of road fatalities in the U.S. every year.
The FCC is always looking for ways to make America a leader in the race for 5G. Meredith Baker, the president of the CTIA recently said, “The Administration and the FCC need to develop a meaningful plan to make significant new spectrum resources in the lower 3 GHz band available for commercial use on terms that will allow robust 5G deployments — and quickly.” As the country looks to rebound from heavy economic losses brought by the pandemic, empowering commercial access to the mid-band of spectrum in the race to 5G seems smart.
James Czerniawski is the Tech and Innovation Policy Analyst with the Libertas Institute, a free-market think tank in Utah and a Young Voices Contributor. His work has appeared in The National Interest, The Washington Examiner, The Salt Lake Tribune, and many others. You can follow him on Twitter @JamesCz19.