Biden's new spectrum deal may irritate 5G operators

There's a new spectrum agreement among various factions within the Biden administration. But the wireless industry might not be too happy about it.

Mike Dano, Editorial Director, 5G & Mobile Strategies

June 12, 2024

4 Min Read
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According to a variety of reports, a contentious battle over spectrum between the US Commerce Department and the US Department of Defense (DoD) may have finally come to an end. But the US wireless industry might not be pleased at the outcome.

However, the contours of that new agreement among agencies within the Biden administration are not clear. 

It's also unclear whether Congress will be able to pass any legislation built on the deal.

Nonetheless, according to one Washington insider who declined to be named, a spectrum pact among various factions within the Biden administration is a "huge deal" because "they usually fight like dogs."

The legislation

At issue is the Spectrum and National Security Act of 2024, introduced in April by Senate Commerce Committee Chair Maria Cantwell, a Democrat from Washington. Broadly, the legislation seeks to reinstate the FCC's auction authority, clarify the nation's approach to spectrum management, fund the Affordable Connectivity Program (ACP) and add more money to the FCC's rip-and-replace program.

That's clearly a tall order, and the bill has been under discussion since its introduction. Moreover, the bill's chances at passage are even more cloudy given the looming presidential election in November. 

However, several sources this week reported that officials from the Commerce Department, the DoD and the Joint Chiefs of Staff reached an agreement on how the legislation might handle spectrum management in the US. As a result of that broad agreement, the Senate Commerce Committee rescheduled its planned markup of the bill to June 18.

That new agreement may pose problems for the US wireless industry. "Our initial analysis is that while it keeps hope alive, we don't believe the wireless industry is on board with the agreement," wrote Blair Levin, a policy adviser to New Street Research and a former high-level FCC official, in a note to investors.

According to one Washington insider, the new agreement likely paves the way for spectrum sharing in bands including the lower 3GHz. That would please the US cable industry but represent a blow to lobbying efforts by the US wireless industry, led by its trade association CTIA.

Reactions

"We are concerned that the Spectrum and National Security Act of 2024 focuses too much on the complex topic of dynamic spectrum sharing and omits a pipeline of much-needed mid-band spectrum to meet growing consumer demand, close America's widening 5G spectrum deficit, and counter China's drive to dominate the world's innovation industries," CTIA CEO Meredith Attwell Baker said in a statement in April.

CTIA didn't immediately respond to questions from Light Reading about the reported agreement this week between the Commerce and Defense departments. However, later on Wednesday, the trade association called on legislators to free up more spectrum to meet 5G demand.

But a lobbying group backed in part by the nation's biggest cable companies wasted no time in cheering the development.

"A collaborative compromise between the Department of Defense, Commerce Department, and the Joint Chiefs on spectrum use and reauthorizing the FCC's spectrum auction authority would represent a major opportunity to make more dynamically shared spectrum available for commercial use while preserving DoD and incumbent federal agency services," said Tamara Smith, spokesperson for Spectrum for the Future, in a statement distributed to the media.

The context and the background

The 5G industry has been eyeing spectrum in the lower 3GHz band for years. US military officials, in past remarks on the topic, have resisted calls for the DoD to release any spectrum in the lower 3GHz band. Instead, they've only been open to spectrum-sharing scenarios. In recent months though, some DoD officials have expressed support for moving some military users out of the band.

Earlier this year, the Biden administration released a broad spectrum plan that calls for a further study into the lower 3GHz band and how it might be freed up for commercial use. The study is expected to cover a variety of spectrum management mechanisms, from sharing to relocation. However, the government's study won't be done until 2026.

In the meantime, US wireless network operators like AT&T and Verizon continue to urge regulators and legislators to release more exclusive-use spectrum for their 5G operations. US cable companies like Comcast and Charter Communications generally oppose that position, in part because 5G-powered fixed wireless access (FWA) services have been cutting into their core broadband businesses.

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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