Report: U.S. now tied with China in global 5G race

Not everyone is convinced it’s fair to call it a “race to 5G,” but if there is a race, the United States is now tied for first with China in “global 5G readiness,” according to a new report from research firm Analysys Mason. That’s in contrast to a year ago, when the same firm found that China and Korea were leading the 5G race, with the U.S. in third place.

The findings are included in a new CTIA paper outlining the wireless industry’s recommendations for the national spectrum strategy being developed by the Trump Administration.

What’s changed to propel the U.S. to the top? The study attributes the improvement to significant investment by America’s wireless industry in 5G networks, as well as government action to reform infrastructure policies and make more spectrum available to wireless operators.

The report points out that during the current White House administration, policymakers have taken key steps to jump-start 5G efforts in the U.S. Indeed, under FCC Chairman Ajit Pai’s 5G FAST plan, the agency took actions to make spectrum available for 5G. At the start of 2018, not a single spectrum auction was scheduled. Since then, the FCC has auctioned the 28 GHz band. It is currently conducting the 24 GHz auction, and it will auction more millimeter wave bands later this year.

The report also notes that Congress enacted the Spectrum Pipeline Act—requiring NTIA to identify spectrum for reallocation—and the MOBILE NOW Act, which requires the auctioning of 100 megahertz of spectrum below 6 GHz for licensed use. The administration also took an important step forward in directing the Commerce Department to review the 3.45-3.55 GHz band with an eye toward reallocating that spectrum for wireless.

But this being CTIA—the U.S. wireless industry’s biggest trade association—its lobbying work is never done, and it’s using this as an opportunity to reiterate the call for more mid-band spectrum.

While the U.S. leads in the availability of high- and low-band spectrum for 5G, it’s way behind when it comes to mid-band spectrum, which is viewed as critical to 5G due to its ability to deliver high capacity and cover large geographic areas. According to the report, other countries plan to make more than four times more licensed mid-band spectrum available than the U.S. by 2020.

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Last year was somewhat of a banner year for CTIA in that it got a lot of what it was asking for. A year ago in April, CTIA was sounding the alarm about the U.S.’ ability to compete in the 5G race, with CTIA President and CEO Meredith Attwell Baker saying there was still time to right the ship—provided the government was on the ball. Besides getting boatloads of spectrum in the auction pipeline, CTIA also saw U.S. policymakers at the federal and state levels acting to ease barriers to small cell deployments and pave the way for commercial launches.

Now the race appears to be turning into a longer-term focus. According to CTIA, a number of challenges remain that must be addressed in order to overcome China in the longer term.

Among those challenges: China retains a significant infrastructure advantage. A recent study showed China with more than 14 wireless cell sites per 10,000 people, compared to 4.7 in the United States, and more than five sites per every 10 square miles, compared to 0.4 in the U.S.

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Of course, CTIA's press release doesn’t mention the ongoing chatter about a controversial 5G proposal that would see the government taking over spectrum designated for 5G, and developing a system to share spectrum on a wholesale basis. But, CTIA does note that the Trump Administration is currently engaged in developing a new National Spectrum Strategy that gives the industry “more freedom to innovate” and “reach the full potential that 5G offers.”

To inform that discussion, CTIA released recommendations for the nation’s spectrum strategy that include the creation of a five-year schedule of auctions to put more high-band, mid-band and low-band spectrum into the hands of the U.S. wireless industry. It also recommended modernization of government policies and procedures to ensure the optimal use of spectrum.