Industry debates 'the art of the possible' in 5G spectrum sharing

Responses to a Department of Defense request for information on 5G spectrum sharing raise questions about network slicing, spectrum auctions and the future of valuable midband spectrum.

Mike Dano, Editorial Director, 5G & Mobile Strategies

February 10, 2021

11 Min Read
Industry debates 'the art of the possible' in 5G spectrum sharing

The US Department of Defense (DoD) released the responses to its September request for information (RFI) on how it might "lease" its spectrum and whether it should own and operate a domestic 5G network. Not surprisingly, most wireless industry players flatly rejected the notion of a "nationalized" 5G network – but some remained open to the possibility of some kind of partnership with the US military.

"DoD can best meet its needs by relying on commercial networks and partnering with a global carrier, such as AT&T, that can support DoD's 5G operations in the US and around the globe," AT&T wrote in its RFI response in October. The DoD released the responses earlier this month.

AT&T floated a number of interesting sharing scenarios that would allow AT&T to build a 5G network using the department's spectrum while also providing American soldiers with access to 5G services.

"A key to the success of many of these approaches will be information sharing between DoD and the commercial telecom industry, in terms of system parameters and operational characteristics/behavior/usage and possibly dynamic data on system use," AT&T explained in its filing. "RAN sharing, specifically a multi-operator core network (MOCN) and a multi-operator radio access network (MORAN), can be a highly effective means of spectrum sharing. Active RAN sharing, facilitated through MOCN and MORAN and 5G Network Slicing, allows both commercial service providers and private operators such as DoD to share RAN and spectral assets. This approach ensures that spectrum shared with the government is devoted specifically to government use when needed and can otherwise be made available for public consumption."

Many of AT&T's suggestions lined up with the proposals that Dish Network publicly released shortly after the DoD published its RFI. But AT&T's suggestions don't come as much of a surprise considering the operator won the US government's FirstNet contract, which involves building a nationwide wireless network for American public-safety workers using 700MHz spectrum specifically set aside for the project

However, AT&T took a firm stance against the idea of the DoD "leasing" its spectrum. "There are serious policy, operational and legal issues with the DoD pursuing a spectrum leasing alternative," the operator argued.

Verizon, T-Mobile weigh in

While AT&T outlined a number of options for the DoD, other carriers took a harder stance on the topic. For example, T-Mobile largely rejected the idea of sharing spectrum with the DoD, and instead argued the military should fully relinquish its excess spectrum holdings to commercial interests, as it has in the past.

"Any sharing of reallocated DoD spectrum should be as limited as possible and provide flexibility to allow commercial licensees to work cooperatively with DoD or other federal entities to maximize the efficient use of spectrum by all users," T-Mobile wrote in its own October response to the RFI.

Meantime, Verizon offered similar comments, arguing that the DoD should be free to explore a variety of technologies in its pursuit of military-grade connectivity, but that it should ultimately release spectrum to the commercial industry for 5G.

"To the extent DoD otherwise wishes to consider the 'art of the possible' further in connection with its own 5G operations, DoD can consider enhanced test bed activity as the appropriate next phase," Verizon wrote. "In the meantime, if DoD has spectrum that would be useful for commercial 5G purposes, we recommend that it work with the FCC and NTIA – as well as Congress – to determine whether spectrum currently used by DoD could be more efficiently used in other ways."

DSS questions

The DoD's RFI primarily focused on Dynamic Spectrum Sharing (DSS) technology, asking for example: "How would DSS work with existing commercial spectrum bands?"

The topic of DSS – which Verizon and AT&T have recently begun using to connect both 4G and 5G users in the same spectrum band – caused much consternation among companies in the wireless industry.

"The term DSS has many different applications and can be many things, and the RFI does not specify what type of sharing arrangement DoD seeks input on," Verizon wrote. "Some forms of DSS are deployed today; some are untested and unready; and some may be inefficient and ill-advised, posing technical barriers that raise serious doubts about their ability to meet DoD's needs in a shared DoD-commercial arrangement."

Cisco, too, wondered exactly what the DoD meant by DSS.

"We note that the RFI includes the term 'Dynamic Spectrum Sharing' or DSS," the company wrote. "For the purposes of our response, Cisco equates DSS with Dynamic Spectrum Access, not the 'DSS' term of art used in 3GPP standards. The 3GPP term is used to describe sharing as between different generations of 3GPP. Our response here reflects generic dynamic shared access, inclusive of several solutions."

A battle over midband spectrum

At the center of the debate over the DoD's RFI is the vast amount of valuable midband spectrum – mostly in the lower 3GHz band – to which the US military currently has exclusive access. During the Trump administration, the Department of Defense suggested that it might not release that spectrum through the NTIA for the FCC to auction for commercial 5G operations – the standard process for such reallocations – and would instead look at some kind of sharing model.

Further, one of the DoD's questions in its RFI asked how the department might "own and operate 5G networks for its domestic operations." That language again raised the specter of a "nationalized" 5G network run by the US government, an idea that dogged former President Trump throughout his four years in office.

In comments earlier this month to C4ISRNET, a publication that tracks the DoD, a top US military official flatly rejected some of those ideas.

"DoD does not plan to own or operate a national 5G network," Frederick Moorefield Jr., a deputy DoD CIO, told the publication.

Moorefield told C4ISRNET that the Pentagon reviewed the responses to its RFI and then sent them to the NTIA, which is the government agency in charge of overseeing federal usage of spectrum.

"The RFI enabled us to 'explore the art of the possible' in terms of dynamic spectrum sharing, which, as noted, will inform NTIA efforts at the national level," Moorefield told C4ISRNET, adding the department doesn't have a timeline for future actions on the RFI. "The DoD remains committed to ensuring mission effectiveness as well as close partnership with civil organizations, like NTIA and the FCC, to ensure the US can be a leader with 5G technologies for both commercial as well as government/military uses."

Indeed, the DoD has suggested that 5G could play a central role in the military's own communications.

The NTIA's role

Moorefield's comments about the NTIA and FCC are noteworthy considering many RFI commenters including T-Mobile, AT&T and Verizon urged the DoD to route its spectrum activities through the NTIA. The DoD's RFI raised the possibility that the Pentagon could ignore the NTIA in its efforts to lease its spectrum directly to 5G providers, though Moorefield's comments would appear to squash that option.

Similarly, President Biden's cabinet appointees appear to be interested in maintaining the status quo when it comes to US government spectrum management. That's important considering the Trump administration often came under fire for a number of squabbles over spectrum between various government departments.

"NTIA is the critical voice of the Executive Branch on federal spectrum matters, and, if confirmed, I will affirmatively work to ensure this is so," wrote Gina Raimondo, Biden's choice to head the Commerce Department, in Senate testimony. NTIA is a part of the Commerce Department.

Added Raimondo, in response to another question: "I do not support nationalization of a 5G telecommunications network and I am unaware of any present intention to pursue a government-owned telecommunications network."

Not nationalized, but not standard

The notion of a nationalized 5G network under Trump gained steam in 2018 when Axios reported on a draft document from the US National Security Council eyeing the construction of a nationalized 5G network as a safeguard against cybersecurity threats from China.

Although Trump himself subsequently backed away from the idea of a national 5G network, one of the 51 items on his 2020 re-election platform was to "win the race to 5G and establish a national high-speed wireless Internet network."

Still, the DoD's RFI appeared to drag up plenty of commenters either supportive of a nationalized 5G network or a more substantial role for the DoD in the management of its spectrum holdings.

"The 5G networks being deployed today have many serious architectural gaps and security vulnerabilities and are not suited for the DoD," wrote Robert Spalding, co-founder of Q Networks, in response to the DoD's RFI. "DoD needs to deploy a secure private 5G network that has an architecture that not only meets DoD's stringent security requirements, but also accelerates innovation."

Although Spalding didn't respond to Light Reading questions on the topic, he appears to be the US official who reportedly penned the original National Security Council draft cited in the 2018 Axios report that raised the prospect of a national 5G network. His detail on the council was not renewed, according to reports from 2018.

However, Spalding did reply to one emailed question from Light Reading: The "Q" in the name of his Q Networks company stands for post-quantum encryption and not QAnon, a disproven and discredited far-right conspiracy theory involving Trump.

From Rivada to Google

Q Networks wasn't the only commenter to the DoD's RFI that expressed support for a change to the spectrum auction process and the DoD's role in 5G.

"While DoD could own and operate its own 5G network in spectrum that it currently occupies, this would almost certainly be an inefficient use of spectrum, network and resulting broadband capacity," wrote startup Rivada in its response to the DoD's RFI. Rivada has been repeatedly tied to the idea of a "nationalized" 5G network as well as a number of close Trump associates.

In its RFI filing, Rivada reiterated its idea that the DoD could use its spectrum to create a wholesale 5G network that would be available to a variety of providers. "Rivada calls its model for providing network capacity to wholesale customers the Open Access Wireless Market (OAWM). Conceptually it is similar to the open-access wholesale electricity markets that have been in operation for decades, and have helped drive down costs and increase investment in that sector," the company wrote.

Others agreed that the DoD needs to take a fresh look at 5G and its spectrum holdings. "DoD should share and not auction this spectrum, beginning with a fixed period such as 10 years. In return for this sharing, the DoD should get highly subsidized, very high speed mobile connectivity along with a platform for autonomous systems for development. The initial test and deployment sites could be on large dense military bases so the DoD would see very early benefits. Ownership by the DoD would allow for future unanticipated needs from the DoD and absolute control over the security and prioritization of DoD needs. The DoD could share this system with our allies as part of our national defense strategy," wrote Eric Schmidt, a former chief exec at Google who now heads Schmidt Futures.

Schmidt recently reiterated some of these ideas in an opinion piece for the Financial Times.

Meantime, Google voiced opposition to the notion of a "nationalized" network but encouraged the DoD to pursue a model like FirstNet. "It should be structured as a contractor-owned, contractor-operated infrastructure operating in federal spectrum, providing communication services to the DoD, leveraging private industry capital and technical capability, and leveraging the volume of commercial demand to lower cost and increase capability for the US government," the company wrote in its response to the RFI.

But the CTIA – the main trade association for the nation's big 5G network operators – made it clear that the industry prefers the status quo.

"CTIA urges DoD to reject any approach that would shift the United States away from the market-driven, private sector-led approach that has been responsible for America's wireless success and promises to ensure continued American leadership," the association wrote. "Instead, DoD should pursue the clearing/auction/relocation approach that has worked so well in the past, ensuring that 5G meets the needs of our military as well as the needs of American consumers, and that America maintains its 5G leadership."

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Mike Dano, Editorial Director, 5G & Mobile Strategies, Light Reading | @mikeddano

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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