The United States must win the race to 5G — fifth-generation cellular technology bringing vastly higher speeds and connectivity — and the Federal Communications Commission is taking great strides to make that happen.
By moving to open up more “mid-band” spectrum and streamlining regulatory processes, the FCC is paving the way for tremendous economic and technological expansion. To fully achieve that goal, however, the Trump administration cannot go wobbly on the free market principles that have ignited our economy, particularly when it comes to spectrum. In particular, it mustn’t repeat the failed industrial policies of previous administrations in the 5.9 GHz band.
Constructing 5G wireless networks requires clever engineering. For example, “low-band” spectrum is necessary for wireless signals to penetrate the walls of your home. But for a Wi-Fi network within your home, “high-band” and mid-band frequencies that do not propagate as far are also necessary in order to limit interference with neighbors’ signals. With that in mind, wireless experts agree: A combination of both low- and high-band spectrum will provide the coverage and capacity needed to construct a nationwide 5G network.
While the FCC has taken steps to open up more high-band spectrum, the agency hasn’t yet freed up unlicensed spectrum, which will play an important part in 5G offloading. During Wi-Fi World Congress this month, Chairman Ajit Pai said it is time to stop “kicking this can down the road.”
“This valuable mid-band spectrum is largely lying fallow, and it has been so for two decades now — just as the internet has gone from dial-up modems to gigabit Wi-Fi,” Pai said. “Given this, inertia isn’t a responsible thing for policymakers to indulge. It is time to launch a comprehensive review of the future of the 5.9 GHz band, make a sober assessment of the facts, and then make a timely decision on the best way forward.”
Twenty years ago, the federal government allocated a full 75 MHz of commercial spectrum in the 5.9 GHz band for a specific automotive communications technology: dedicated short-range communications. The federal government pushed that spectrum policy for talking cars with a promise of reducing death and injury.
Yet despite that huge government-provided asset, and more than $1 billion in taxpayer money spent, no product or system was ever delivered. Today, no lives have been saved and Americans remain stuck with a plan that never worked, and less available Wi-Fi bandwidth.
Thankfully, the Trump administration appears disinclined to support that failed policy, and seems to have all but abandoned the Obama administration’s last-minute attempt to mandate specific 5.9 GHz vehicle-to-vehicle (“V2V’) radio systems in all light vehicles in the United States.
Some interests, however, continue to pressure the federal government to achieve the same result by using its political and regulatory power to effectively reserve the 5.9 GHz spectrum for use only by automotive technologies — blocking market decisions with a government mandate. That would be just as unwise as the attempted Obama-era mandate. Reserving the band for the autos only would maintain a highly regulatory spectrum policy approach that has failed for the last 20 years.
Reserving the 5.9 GHz band solely for the autos would put a government thumb on the scale, favoring and subsidizing one auto safety technology over the technologies chosen by the market. The government should not preference V2V over the vehicle-resident safety technologies that market forces are already choosing, like the Lidar, radar and cameras used on autonomous vehicles today. If V2V is the best approach, it doesn’t need the Department of Transportation to prop it up with free spectrum.
That subsidy would also distort the broader communications technology markets. Unlike Lidar, radar and autonomous-vehicle cameras, radio-based V2V automotive products are less likely to be used for safety warnings and more for advertising, e-commerce and entertainment in cars. Other companies providing those services would have to either buy spectrum at auction or share unlicensed bands with others.
For years, permission has been sought to use the 5.9 GHz band for additional wireless bandwidth, recognizing that this part of the spectrum is what will help consumers get to gigabit Wi-Fi. In order to drive innovation and the economic benefits that follow, the FCC’s goal must be the maximization of spectrum use. That is, the rules governing the 5.9 GHz band should be altered so that it can be used simultaneously and more effectively by more entities. Spectrum is a finite resource, and our policies should maximize it.
The Trump administration has already achieved great success by pursuing an agenda of less regulation, and its FCC has this perfect opportunity to fix the mistakes of the past by abandoning the “central planning model” of spectrum allocation. The agency should stop trying to pick winners and losers in the marketplace, and instead re-examine this spectrum to encourage its best use for wireless networks. Only then can the market achieve wireless innovation and the business certainty necessary to advance infrastructure investment and 5G.