No Big Giveaways: Policymakers Must Rethink Spectrum Policy

With everyone facing a global pandemic and citywide lockdowns, millions of shops, restaurants, fitness centers, houses of worship, schools and universities have shut down. What has emerged, however, are millions of workers reliant on their internet services to telework, teleconference and conduct business communications and commercial transactions. Consumers are signing up for exercise webinars and religious services, patients are using telemedicine services and millions of students are connecting online each day for their classes.

As American families increasingly work and learn from home, our networks are handling much more capacity than normal. According to Cloudflare, internet traffic in the United States is up as much as 20 percent since early February, with data-heavy services like teleconferencing and gaming up as much as 300 to 400 percent. Voice calling is also making a comeback, with companies like AT&T seeing a 25-50 percent increase from the previous week.

American companies and the Federal Communications Commission are working together to rise to these new and unique network challenges to keep us all connected. Very recently, the FCC granted temporary wireless spectrum access to T-MobileAT&TVerizon and US Cellular to address new levels of demand on the networks. These are temporary measures that once again underscore the need for Congress and the FCC to focus on the spectrum pipeline to avoid a spectrum crunch.

As we move toward a next-generation 5G future, American wireless companies are significantly lagging behind their international peers, particularly with respect to mid-band spectrum. As spectrum expert Peter Rysavy notes, “mid-band spectrum is currently the sweet spot for 5G deployment,” as it provides a huge boost in capacity and performance without requiring the density of higher band small cells.

To boost consumer wireless services, the FCC has taken concrete steps in the last year to provide American wireless operators with new opportunities for mid-band spectrum auctions. The upcoming 3.5 GHz auction, as well as the C-band auction in December, will provide an additional 350 GHz of mid-band spectrum for 5G services. But, as Rsyvay notes, “after C-Band, no immediate good opportunities exist for additional mid-band spectrum for 5G.” Further, neither Congress nor the FCC has a comprehensive mid-band plan to ensure American carriers have the right spectrum they need to win the race to widespread 5G deployment

American consumers should be concerned to learn, then, that the FCC is contemplating a proposal for the 6 GHz band that would give away for free 1,200 MHz of prized mid-band spectrum for unlicensed use. While there is certainly a need to increase the amount of unlicensed spectrum available to support increased Wi-Fi traffic, the approach has always been balanced in the past. That no longer appears to be the case. With this 6 GHz proposal, the FCC would almost double the amount of unlicensed spectrum in the mid-band compared to cellular, a view that does not reflect the priorities of American consumers.

As an alternative to completely giving away the spectrum, the wireless industry has proposed dividing the 6 GHz band evenly between licensed and unlicensed use, with the FCC auctioning off the upper portion of the 6 GHz band. Not only would this provide the wireless industry with the much-needed mid-band spectrum to provide consumers with better 5G services, but estimates suggest the auction could bring in $20 billion of revenue to the Treasury. Given our current economic situation, that is revenue that could fund priorities such as next-gen 911 services or deploying broadband to rural America.

Internationally, countries such as South Korea, Japan and China are scheduling mid-band auctions this year. A recent study estimated that the US faces a five-fold deficit in mid-band spectrum compared to its peers. If there are delays in either the 3.5 GHz or C-band auctions this year, it would put America even further behind in the race to 5G. What’s more, if the FCC moves forward with opening up the entire 6 GHz band to unlicensed use, there will be no auction revenue going to the Treasury, and there is no going back.

The FCC is expected to make its decision this month, but what’s the rush? Why in a time of uncertainty — both for wireless networks as well as the US economy as a whole — is the FCC voting to permanently close off the 6 GHz band to potential wireless network investment? Now is the time for the FCC to take a step back and reassess the priorities of our wireless networks.

At this time, it’s not clear why the FCC would devote all of this valuable and scarce mid-band spectrum for Wi-Fi, rather than giving faster licensed wireless services for consumers to use while they work, go to school or travel?

We don’t need a big corporate giveaway. At a minimum, let half of this spectrum go to the highest bidder. Consumers deserve better.

Steve Pociask is president and CEO of the American Consumer Institute, a nonprofit education and research organization

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