The U.S. is hamstrung by spectrum constraints — Entner

Roger Entner

A few weeks ago Senators Wicker and Thune asked FCC Chairwoman Rosenworcel about the future of spectrum auctions and the spectrum pipeline in the United States. The Chairwoman’s answer was sobering and provides reasons for great concern. It seems to indicate that we don't have a real pipeline.

The U.S. has now several times fallen behind the rest of the world when it comes to identifying, clearing and making available spectrum to build commercial mobile broadband networks. For example, European countries auctioned off their 3.5 GHz spectrum for 5G in 2019, whereas we did this only last year. The least of our problems was two years of American journalists asking why the U.S. had and still has slower 5G than the rest of the world. It was also two years of lost time for American inventors and innovators to experience fast 5G capabilities on which they can develop the new 5G killer apps.

Oddly, the same regulators that have restricted access to spectrum, which needed to expand networks, are quick to fault the U.S. mobile industry for “falling behind” other countries with network deployment. To the extent one believes the U.S. consumer is at a deficit compared to European mobile consumers, the reason is pretty obvious. The U.S. government is not making available the necessary spectrum to deliver the fastest mobile speeds possible with today’s technology, contrary to their global competitors. 

The FCC’s general spectrum auction authority is expiring on September 30, 2022. Auction 108 for spectrum in the 2.5 GHz band is starting on July 29 and has only 63 days to complete. Beyond that no spectrum auctions are scheduled. Confusingly, the Commission will still have authority to auction 30 MHz as dictated in the Spectrum Pipeline Act of 2015 and some cats and dogs in the 3.1 bands.

Chairwoman Rosenworcel explained that a number of spectrum bands are “in various stages of the rulemaking process,” which could lead to auctions. She named 1675-80 MHz, 3.1 to 3.45 GHz, 12 GHz, 26 GHz, 42 GHz, and 50 GHz. Putting on a 5G or even 6G hat these spectrum bands are more or less suitable to help bring much needed wireless capacity to Americans.

While the 1675-80 MHz spectrum is in an ideal position for propagation, 5 MHz of this spectrum is the proverbial drop of water on a hot stone. In a world where wireless standards assume a minimum of 100 MHz-wide channels, a total of 5 MHz is an anachronism from the 2G days. It is a well-meaning effort, but this sliver of spectrum will do nothing to advance the country’s leadership position on 5G and beyond.

3.1 to 3.45 GHz is prime real estate now. The right mix between low enough on the spectrum dial to provide coverage and high enough to provide significant speed and capacity gains is just terrific. The potential for an additional 350 MHz of spectrum, adjacent to the 3.45 to 3.55 MHz band already auctioned, makes a lot of sense. We sense a palpable excitement to put this to use in commercial networks as quickly as possible.

The moment we look at the 12 GHz, 26 GHz, 42 GHz, and 50 GHz band we are doubling down on spectrum that has or should have very short range. I hope that wireless engineers can do their magic and live up to the promises of the current 12 GHz spectrum owners that this has further propagation that one might think. The 26 GHz, 42 GHz, and 50 GHz band will behave like the current mmWave spectrum with cell site ranges of 200 yards or so. Great for outdoors in urban areas, needs either an antenna or a lot of luck to get indoors where 70% of usage happens, and is currently utterly useless for closing the digital divide in rural America.

In a nutshell the mission, if the regulators choose to accept it, is straight forward:

The FCC has to expand its search for spectrum. We need increments of 100 MHz swathes of unencumbered spectrum. Clearly, Congress has to reauthorize the FCC’s spectrum auction authority. Congress should also expand the authority of the FCC to work with NTIA to repurpose government spectrum. Such repurposing will actually help government agencies by using some of the funds of the auction proceeds to replace aging equipment with new, better, more spectrum efficient technology. It’s an all-around win for everyone involved.

The stakes are significant. Wireless spectrum is the fuel for a high-tech society like the U.S. Simply put, more spectrum for commercial mobile broadband networks means economic growth and cheaper more plentiful mobile broadband. Consider, in the last 10 years of moving from 4G to 5G, the U.S. mobile industry:

  1. Invested $300 billion on improving and expanding wireless networks.
  2. Enabled Apple, Google, Facebook and other American digital companies to dominate the global app ecosphere valued at $6.3 trillion.
  3. Enabled that most new cars can have built-in navigation so that people no longer get lost and can circumvent traffic jams.
  4. Help transform the entertainment industry by shifting from a linear content and download world to an on-demand and streaming world.
  5. Create millions of high-paying jobs that support this unwiring of our mobile and digital lifestyle.

Now is absolutely the time for U.S. regulators to get moving to identify a spectrum pipeline for commercial networks and allocate that resource to the operators most willing and able to use it. Remember, the average time between identifying spectrum that can be used for mobile broadband, and actually deploying it to increase capacity is roughly 13 years, sometimes more. For years, wireless analysts were asked why the U.S. was lagging behind other countries in terms of speeds and the next iteration of network technology. If the current situation is not remedied we can point to this for an explanation.

Roger Entner is the founder and analyst at Recon Analytics. He received an honorary doctor of science degree from Heriot-Watt University. Recon Analytics specializes in fact-based research and the analysis of disparate data sources to provide unprecedented insights into the world of telecommunications. Follow Roger on Twitter @rogerentner.

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