Opinion

Competition for Bandwidth During COVID-19 is Crushing America. 5G Can Help.

By Gary Shapiro
June 26, 2020 at 5:00 am ET

As most Americans are now working and learning from home, streaming video content and joining video calls with friends and family, broadband is our connection to the outside world.

According to research from the Consumer Technology Association, more than half of consumers (53 percent) had or were considering using contact-less delivery services for groceries. Just under half say they’re watching live TV (49 percent) and online streaming video (48 percent) more frequently than they normally would, and a little less than a third (31 percent) say the same about video games.

With these increased demands on broadband networks, it’s become even more important to expand broadband access and capability so our nation can continue to work, play, study and heal under quarantine.

Our leaders are already taking concrete steps toward this goal. In 2018, the Senate saw the introduction of a bipartisan bill designed to speed the transition to 5G, the next generation of broadband networks. Other bills  – including the AIRWAVES Act and the Ray Baum’s Act, which became law in 2018 – aim to make more spectrum available for commercial use. CTA also supports the Federal Communications Commission’s recent proposal to better leverage TV white spaces for broadband access in rural and underserved communities.

This is strong progress – but in this time of crisis, we can’t delay. COVID-19 has and will continue to transform the way we live our lives, with more people relying on remote work and streaming services even after the pandemic. Our leaders must prioritize 5G, implementing legislative and regulatory solutions that will prepare our wireless networks for the traffic of the 21st century. These solutions can also help close the rural digital divide that has become more apparent in the past few months. COVID-19 has demonstrated how vast swaths of America suffers from inferior broadband that has limited access to education, work, entertainment and lifesaving technologies.

Infrastructure investment will be a crucial part of any 5G deployment strategy. 5G relies on small cell infrastructure – backpack-sized equipment that can be attached to streetlamps, traffic lights and public buildings. Many states and localities are slowing the rollout of 5G by imposing excessive fees and other requirements for small cell deployment, as well as failing to process applications for small cells. Such actions create a patchwork effect, where some states and localities are prepared to adopt 5G while others lag behind, causing slow nationwide adoption.

We applaud the recent decision by the FCC to expedite state and local siting rules. This, combined with the FCC’s prior actions, will go a long way toward accelerating 5G deployment nationwide. But we still need Congress to fix the current regulatory patchwork by standardizing the rollout process, limiting the fees states and localities can charge for deployment and clarifying what kind of non-fee requirements are permissible.

Another step our leaders must take to deploy 5G is making more spectrum available to companies and consumers. A CTA report found unlicensed spectrum generates $62 billion a year for the U.S. economy. I urge our elected officials to continue to partner with the FCC and the National Telecommunications and Information Administration to make even more spectrum available. These agencies are looking at making 7.25 GHz of spectrum available to licensed users – a measure that would improve existing wireless networks for the consumers hungry for bandwidth.

Additionally, the FCC recently voted unanimously to make the 6 GHz band available for unlicensed use, opening up 1,200 megahertz of spectrum. This decision will help increase connectivity at a time when we need it most, especially in rural areas that find themselves particularly hard-hit by a lack of connectivity during the pandemic.

Given the intense demand for spectrum, policymakers should not shy away from encouraging government spectrum users to share their resources. As FCC Commissioner Michael O’Rielly recently observed, the United States will need a lot of spectrum to lead the world in 5G. In this country, the federal government actually owns a lot of it. We need to be creative about how we access the bandwidth needed to bring 5G to consumers and innovators.

These strategies will be crucial as we look toward reopening the country and bringing back the economy. 5G has the potential to inject $500 billion into the U.S. economy and create 3 million new jobs. By making these investments in infrastructure and repurposing spectrum now, we won’t just help our country bounce back from COVID-19 – we’ll also lay the groundwork for prosperity and innovation for decades to come.

Gary Shapiro is president and CEO of the Consumer Technology Association, the U.S. trade association representing more than 2000 consumer technology companies, and a New York Times best-selling author, most recently of the new book, Ninja Future: Secrets to Success in the New World of Innovation. His views are his own.

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