Spectrum Frontiers is the Right Plan for 5G – and Right Model for FCC to Follow


Over the last several years, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has increasingly abandoned the light-touch approach that has allowed the Internet and high-tech innovation to flourish. Yet, when it comes to issues of spectrum management, Commissioners have gotten things almost exactly right. Nowhere is this more evident than with its approval of Spectrum Frontiers, which takes a flexible and forward-thinking approach to 5G. It’s an approach that will drive U.S. leadership and innovation – and one that the FCC should considering applying in other areas of tech regulation.

Spectrum Frontiers, approved by the FCC this week, will open up a tremendous amount of new spectrum for next-generation wireless networks. The successful development of 5G networks is important for advancing mobile communications, and will lead to connectivity that is faster, more reliable and more robust. But it goes far beyond just that – 5G will be essential for allowing the Internet of Things to achieve its enormous potential to improve healthcare outcomes, make transportation safer and more efficient, reduce manufacturing costs, and so much more.

The approach the FCC has embraced is smart and aggressive, but avoids the heavy-handedness of many other recent regulatory decisions.  Chairman Wheeler put it best when he announced the plan, saying that he prefers an approach of “making the spectrum available and standing out of the way of technology development…”  In doing so, Spectrum Frontiers will assure U.S. companies they will have the key ingredient needed to power 5G networks – but will not limit the private sector to certain government-chosen paths or restrict the speed of development by insisting on a federally-approved timeline.

Such an approach is vital. The U.S. was a world leader in developing 4G networks and technologies, and reaped tremendous economic benefits – $260 billion in U.S. private sector capital investments over the last 10 years, according to one estimate — and huge societal benefits for consumers.

5G is a different story – other regions of the world want to take a page from our 4G playbook and make the 5G future a reality first on their home turf.  That’s because the winner of this race enjoys the benefits of technology leadership, and can then sell their technology to the rest of the world. We are seeing policymakers in Asia and Europe pushing toward 5G at a brisk and determined pace. Underscoring this concern, a TIA survey of wireless operators found that 71 percent believe Asia will play the lead role in 5G development and deployment.

As Chairman Wheeler acknowledged, it would be a mistake to handle 5G spectrum management on a wait-and-see basis. Spectrum is the fuel that will ensure that the next network is truly game-changing. Like a long summer road trip that has a destination but no clearly defined route, there are many variables that will influence our progress – but there is one thing we absolutely know we’ll need: plenty of fuel.

Because the FCC’s Spectrum Frontiers plan does not attach strings or release spectrum only as-needed, it should help companies to push the boundaries of innovation and to move forward with 5G plans more quickly and with greater confidence.  It’s the right approach and an important step – but even still, there will be significant work ahead. Not only will we need to make certain it is implemented with the flexibility that has been promised, but we must continue to increase spectrum availability and improve efficiency.

Of course, access to spectrum is not the only question that must be answered on the path to next-generation wireless networks. The development of effective and widely accepted standards is also critical, and a failure to do so has the potential to dangerously restrict the potential of 5G, along with the incredible technologies it will support.  Industry stakeholders are working to hammer out the details of network operations and device compatibility, and government leaders have a role to play in pressing for all nations to accept the agreed-upon standards.

And while they’re at it, these same leaders should follow the path they’ve taken with Spectrum Frontiers, and consider collaborating with the private sector on a whole range of telecommunications issues. Such an effort could create a far more effective regulatory environment with government protecting consumer interests while “standing out of the way of technology development” – along with the innovation, international leadership, jobs and economic opportunity that come with that development.

Scott Belcher is the CEO of the Telecommunications Industry Association (TIA). TIA represents the manufacturers and suppliers of global communications networks through standards development, advocacy, market intelligence, and networking. 

Morning Consult