Editor’s note: This op-ed piece comes in the context of President Donald Trump’s meetings with technology and wireless leaders as part of Tech Week.
Next generation mobile technologies will power everything from drones to driverless cars. How quickly this occurs, however, depends on how fast the spectrum that supports these technologies becomes available. As the White House meets today on 5G issues, I urge the Administration to expeditiously advance economic and consumer-friendly policies that speed the deployment of transformative mobile technologies and services that will follow. In fact, the discussion cannot come soon enough: America needs wireless operators to deploy the latest generation of wireless technology today to maintain the country’s lead in the global race to 5G advanced technologies that fuel economic growth. Without the higher speeds, greater capacity, and lower latency that 5G networks can offer, Americans may lose out on the job-creating innovations that 5G will bring to virtually every sector of the economy and every corner of the United States. This is particularly true for rural Americans who have the most to gain from next generation broadband services.
The foundation of 5G is spectrum, a precious but scarce resource. America’s spectrum largely is controlled by legacy users, most of them far less likely than competitive carriers to innovate or stimulate economic growth. Encouraging entrenched incumbents to surrender or even share spectrum resources is never easy. In 2012, Congress authorized the Federal Communications Commission to hold an “incentive auction” of 600 MHz broadband spectrum licenses. This innovative legislation allowed the FCC to present over-the-air broadcast television licensees with an opportunity to voluntarily sell their spectrum licenses to broadband providers which would (and did) pay top-dollar to use the spectrum to offer next-generation wireless services.
From start to finish, this novel auction took nearly seven years to conduct. To put that into context, about seven years ago Instagram was a fledging app, Square launched its mobile payment device, and advanced voice controls like Siri were just being embedded into mobile devices. All of these “innovations” are powerful testimony to the importance of mobile technology and the spectrum on which it runs. Unsurprisingly, the auction that closed in April of this year raised nearly $20 billion dollars – more than all but one other auction in the twenty-three-year history of FCC spectrum auctions.
Nearly half of all proceeds from the incentive auction will go directly to taxpayers to pay for deficit reduction and other public purposes. The remainder will go to broadcasters, who will soon receive some $12 billion to voluntarily exit taxpayer-owned, government-issued frequencies they no longer need and, for those who did not sell their licenses, to pay for reorganizing legacy operations in ways that make the spectrum ripe for 5G broadband deployment.
The incentive auction is an example of good oversight of a market-based mechanism, the kind that creates quantifiable boons to America’s prosperity, and investment in our global competitiveness. Now, the FCC must transfer licenses to winning bidders and “repack” remaining broadcasters. While the final July 13, 2020 deadline for broadcasters to exit the band remains years away, lawmakers must prioritize meeting or beating that deadline.
Congress and the FCC should ignore demands to postpone broadband investment in the 600 MHz band. Every delay is another day that consumers, especially those in rural areas, will forgo desperately needed advanced wireless services. Just as important, auction winners spent billions of dollars based on the expectation that government and the broadcasters would hand over, on-time, the spectrum rights that bidders paid to acquire. Studies show that the FCC’s 39-month “repack” schedule offers the over-the-air television licensees that remain in the band ample time to plan new broadcast facilities, secure and install equipment, and change operations to newly reconfigured broadcast spectrum. Further, the FCC risks losing future auction revenues, and leaving consumers behind, if it cannot deliver on its well-founded promise to timely complete the repack process.
This 600 MHz spectrum also promises to help deliver transformative services spanning the increasingly advanced Internet of Things. Equipment manufacturer Ericsson expects to see some 29 billion devices connected to the internet worldwide by 2022, including cars, meters, sensors, watches, consumer electronics, and, of course, phones. But the United States could miss out on this massive expansion of computing power – and the investment and innovation it promises – if wireless operators cannot gain timely access to the spectrum they need to support these devices.
And although many bands will eventually be used for 5G, including millimeter wave spectrum, the base layer of coverage that low-band spectrum can provide will establish the foundation for next-generation wireless networks in rural areas. Signals travel far on low-band spectrum, which makes these frequencies ideally suited for wide-area coverage across lightly-populated rural areas. Deploying this spectrum is tantamount to demonstrating willingness to invest and create jobs in rural America, and bridging the “digital divide.”
The Administration will no doubt have a long list of measures to deliver lasting improvements to the U.S. economy, and I expect mobile broadband investment to be near the top. The American mobile industry is a fountainhead of innovation and economic stimulus. Our leaders can kick-start the nation’s digital transformation by clearing legacy uses from the 600 MHz band and allowing the market for 5G broadband services to flourish.
Steven K. Berry is president and chief executive officer of Competitive Carriers Association, an organization that represents nearly 100 small and rural wireless operators.
Filed Under: Telecommunications (Spectrum)