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National Spectrum Policy Needed to Meet the Need of Strategic 5G Deployment

September 21, 2021 by Victoria Turner

As the wireless industry works to get 5G deployed across the nation, the U.S. Department of Commerce has been working hand-in-hand with the Federal Communications Commission to make sure there is enough spectrum to do it, said Secretary of Commerce Gina Raimondo Tuesday. 

There are still 30 million Americans who find themselves without affordable, reliable internet, she added at the National Telecommunications and Information Agency’s Spectrum Policy Symposium. With 87 million Americans not fully connected at a time when internet use is a necessity, Raimondo pointed to President Joe Biden’s pending $65 billion bipartisan infrastructure bill as a means to reach these under- or unserved Americans found in the digital divide. 

“To optimize wireless, we need our physical broadband infrastructure to work alongside our invisible spectrum infrastructure,” she said, adding that “much of our modern world is powered by spectrum for commercial services like 5G to aviation, space travel, and much more.” 

Our mobile technologies run on airwaves known as spectrum, operated through radio frequency licenses allocated by the FCC, as airwaves are sovereign assets. It is the invisible highway used by our mobile providers and other communication services. From commercial use like cellphones to national security to public safety uses spectrum has a “strategic importance across the board.” 

And because of this, she added, “we need a national spectrum strategy that involves all major governmental stakeholders.” The Commerce Department’s NTIA and the FCC are the agencies at the helm of spectrum management and US connectivity initiatives. 

5G technologies run on high-frequency, millimeter-wave bands which are super fast but cannot travel very far or through topographical barriers like buildings or mountains. They need to be connected through cell towers or small-cell sites – so wireless service still technically requires wired stops throughout its path. That’s where building out the broadband infrastructure comes into play as the facilities would be the connecting points. 

The FCC has focused heavily on increasing the availability of mid-band spectrum for commercial use, which can travel farther and has the bandwidth to hold a lot of data traffic. That is why providers like T-Mobile, who already had a huge swath of this mid-band spectrum, keep touting this advantage to win the nationwide 5G race and why mid-band industry has been calling the “sweet spot” for its deployment.

“The U.S. is leading the world in allocating mid-band spectrum for 5G, but we need more collaboration moving forward,” she said.

Echoing Raimondo, FCC Acting Chief Counsel Umair Javed said that national policy would help “avoid some of [the] pitfalls” found when stakeholders and federal agencies disagree with the strategic goals behind U.S. spectrum innovation. 

Freeing up mid-band spectrum to be repurposed for commercial use, allowing for the unused spectrum to be used through unlicensed spectrum sharing but still protecting priority access licenses by the government, and other dynamic spectrum sharing initiatives will continue to be essential to “narrowing the digital divide because it makes connectivity affordable” said Michael Calabrese, director at New America’s Open Technology Institute. 

Expanding on these efforts to continue the spectrum sharing and making regulatory framework changes is vital to the Department of Defense, as the increased spectrum demand by federal and private players has led the airwaves to become more congested, said Chief Information Officer Vernita Harris. 

Coming up with a unified spectrum policy, however, is just the beginning of the “roadmap” ahead, according to Javed. From revamping the FCC auction process during its reauthorization next year, to “new legislative tools for repurposing spectrum that preserve flexibility,” Javed said the government cannot “declare mission accomplished yet… we do have more work to do.”

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