Opinion

The 5G Race is a Cross-Country Event, and Rural America Is a Key Team Member

As the buzz around “winning the race to 5G” continues to grab headlines, we should all keep in mind that the very existence of next-generation wireless technology is not inevitable, particularly in rural America.

Sure, we all want the United States to lead the world and be the first to fully deploy 5G, but that’s simply not going to happen if rural America is left behind. This race is like a cross-country team event: While the first to cross the finish line may get more points, the contest isn’t over until the entire team finishes. Rural America is a key member of the 5G team.

Given that deployments in cities like New York and Los Angeles will require vastly different infrastructure than suburban and rural geographies, it is encouraging to see lawmakers and regulators agree that a truly connected country won’t become a reality without access to more spectrum. And while important efforts are well under way to make high-band frequencies available, policy makers and government agencies are right to recognize the urgent need to pivot to the mid-band, some of which is available right now.

As the president and Federal Communications Commission Chairman Ajit Pai recently stressed, winning the 5G race is essential to our economic and national security, and we must prioritize innovation and investment in America’s mid-band spectrum. Building on proceedings such as those exploring spectrum in the 3.7 to 4.2 GHz and 6 GHz bands, Chairman Pai took a great first step to free up mid-band spectrum in the L-band with plans to reallocate 1675-1680 MHz for shared commercial use. These types of efforts are increasingly important to rural and urban America’s shared success and ensuring all Americans experience the advantages associated with next-generation communications. But key to winning any race is establishing a position early, keeping a steady pace and taking advantage of opportunities to build momentum. As we look at the mid-band pipeline, we cannot forget the 40 MHz of licensed L-band frequencies that would add meaningful points on the scoreboard for Team USA.

Ligado Networks has a unique plan that would enable satellite and terrestrial use of its lower mid-band spectrum for mission-critical industrial internet of things applications and 5G purposes like precision agriculture, telemedicine and autonomous vehicle capabilities. Its plan would make spectrum available to industries ranging from utilities and manufacturing to academia and research centers, no matter the location. These are all industries vital to rural regions, but in order to remain competitive, they need access to the spectrum that can support such cutting-edge technologies.

A recent ABI Research study shows that due to rapid ramping of increasing investments made by the U.S. wireless industry and the FCC’s regulatory efforts, “it is the United States who will win the 5G race in the short term.” As a country, it is critical we continue to invest significantly in our wireless infrastructure because 5G has the potential to extend the Internet to almost any kind of connection, any kind of device, and anywhere a wireless signal can reach.

That potential is worth every effort to urgently pursue an “all-of-the-above” spectrum approach to keep America competitive and thriving in a 21st century economy. That approach requires a mix of low, mid and high bands, as well as timely decision-making which rewards innovation. For the L-band, the proposal to utilize those mid-band frequencies has been without action for over 1,200 days. This snail’s pace runs counter to the daily calls for more mid-band resources and a comprehensive approach necessary to win the 5G race.

Advancing the L-band proposal provides the Administration with an opportunity to bring new, mid-band frequencies online this year – elevating industrial sectors, creating new jobs and igniting investment and innovation across urban and rural districts in all 50 states. By providing certainty this year, the FCC will provide critical support to the vast number of businesses contributing so much to our national economy, particularly those serving the rural regions of our country.

We are mistaken as a nation if we believe we can preserve the status quo and still come out on top in the global race to 5G.  That strategy leaves too many points on the table and does not ensure that benefits will be shared equitably with rural industries. It’s time to put action behind the commitment to an “all-of-the-above,” forward-looking approach. Chairman Pai’s agenda for the Commission’s May meeting was an important first step, and we can build on that momentum by acting on the other L-band spectrum as well

Taking these steps together is a winning strategy that will help ensure the U.S. wireless ecosystem maintains its position as the global leader. Anything less, and the math just doesn’t add up.

Steven K. Berry is president and CEO of the Competitive Carriers Association, representing competitive wireless carriers and stakeholders. Doug Smith is the president and CEO of Reston, Va.-based satellite communications company Ligado Networks.

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