New legislation would quickly free up 600MHz of federal spectrum for 5G interests. But that bill will have to fight through a political minefield populated by Pentagon, cable and wireless representatives.

Mike Dano, Editorial Director, 5G & Mobile Strategies

March 11, 2024

5 Min Read
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(Source: devilmaya/Alamy Stock Photo)

Spectrum is a hot topic in Washington these days, as lawmakers, lobbyists, regulators and others look for advantage ahead of the release of an implementation plan for the Biden administration's national spectrum strategy, expected Thursday.

The latest: A new bill from two top Republican Senators would require the government to reallocate at least 600MHz of midband spectrum for commercial use within three years.

"To dominate in next-generation wireless technologies, stay ahead of our adversaries, and advance strong economic growth, the US must create a pipeline to expand commercial access to midband spectrum," Sen. Ted Cruz, a top Republican on the Commerce Committee, said in a statement to Reuters.

Cruz, along with Sen. John Thune, introduced the new "Spectrum Pipeline" bill, which would require the NTIA to identify at least 2,500MHz of spectrum between 1.3GHz and 13.2GHz to be reallocated from federal government use to non-governmental or shared use over the next five years.

The legislation specifically carves out 1,250MHz of spectrum for ''full-power commercial licensed use cases,'' language that generally refers to spectrum for the cellular industry, including for 5G. Of that amount, 600MHz would need to be released within three years.

Unsurprisingly, the cellular industry cheered the new legislation.

"We thank the Senators for their leadership in pursuing the needed action to restore the FCC's auction authority and create a strong pipeline of full-power, licensed spectrum that will support Americans' growing wireless data use, protect our national security, and infuse real competition in the home broadband market," said Meredith Attwell Baker, CEO of the 5G industry's CTIA trade association, in a statement.

"This bill allocates 1,250MHz of licensed spectrum for mobile broadband services – a much-needed influx of this crucial resource that is necessary to meet America's insatiable demand for wireless connectivity," AT&T's Mike Ferguson, EVP of federal legislative relations, said in a statement.

The DoD angle

Hovering over the new legislation is an ongoing debate over spectrum in the lower 3GHz band. The US Department of Defense (DoD) currently uses the lower 3GHz spectrum band to operate its radars, satellites, navigation equipment and more. But the 5G industry has been trying for years to convince the White House to reallocate some or all of that band for cellular operations.

Interestingly, the debate over the lower 3GHz band isn't clearly splitting along partisan lines. For example, two Democrats and one Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee recently told the Biden administration that freeing the lower 3GHz band for 5G would "significantly harm DoD's ability to carry out its missions, increase costs, and adversely affect our national security."

Although the new bill from Cruz and Thune doesn't specifically mention the lower 3GHz band, it would presumably be among the bands considered by the NTIA.

Regardless, the fight over the future of the lower 3GHz band has spread across Washington. For example, the FCC's auction authority was not renewed last year in part because of the fight over the lower 3GHz band.

Indeed, the FCC last week announced it would open a proceeding into how it might manage the nation's airwaves without its auction authority.

Why has the FCC's broad spectrum auction authority been hamstrung for more than a year due to a debate over just one spectrum band? Even some longtime analysts are scratching their heads: "We truly don't understand why the deal that gives spectrum auction authority for everything other than spectrum currently controlled by the DoD has not been cut but then, this is not a DC in which logical deals come to fruition," summarized Blair Levin, a policy adviser to New Street Research and a former high-level FCC official, in a note to investors Monday.

The question of sharing

The DoD, for its part, has long remained open to sharing the lower 3GHz band with commercial interests. And, recently, one top DoD official suggested that the agency would consider moving some of its airborne radar operations off the lower 3GHz band in order to free it up for 5G operations.

But a new letter from the National Security Telecommunications Advisory Committee (NSTAC) offers further insight into the spectrum sharing question. The NSTAC brings together roughly two dozen top telecom executives from companies ranging from Verizon to Cox, Comcast, Lockheed Martin and AT&T to advise the White House on telecom issues.

The letter from the group warns that dynamic spectrum sharing remains a work in progress, and that more testing and research is needed in order to fully implement the technology in a national spectrum strategy.

The letter "demonstrates a clear consensus that dynamic spectrum sharing (DSS) technology is not sufficiently advanced to support the needs of diverse commercial and federal users in the near term," according to CTIA's Brad Gillen.

Thus, the letter may be viewed as a rebuke to the cable industry, which has been pushing for sharing in the lower 3GHz band. As noted by Light Reading, there is a widening debate between the CTIA (representing the wireless industry) and Spectrum for the Future (in part backed by cable companies) over spectrum sharing and the lower 3GHz spectrum band. That debate may stem from a desire by the cable industry to prevent the expansion of fixed wireless access (FWA) services across the US via additional midband spectrum, like spectrum in the lower 3GHz band.

For its part, the Biden administration released its national spectrum strategy last year. The plan called for more studies on sharing in the lower 3GHz band. The administration is expected to release a more detailed implementation plan for the strategy later this week.

About the Author(s)

Mike Dano

Editorial Director, 5G & Mobile Strategies, Light Reading

Mike Dano is Light Reading's Editorial Director, 5G & Mobile Strategies. Mike can be reached at [email protected], @mikeddano or on LinkedIn.

Based in Denver, Mike has covered the wireless industry as a journalist for almost two decades, first at RCR Wireless News and then at FierceWireless and recalls once writing a story about the transition from black and white to color screens on cell phones.

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