Charting a New Course on Mid-Band Spectrum Will Ensure U.S. Global Leadership

The United States is at a critical juncture in spectrum policy that will determine whether we remain a global leader in wireless technology and 5G deployment or cede ground to our competitors like the People’s Republic of China. We can chart a course for U.S.-led innovation, or we can pursue old school approaches to spectrum licensing that will only reinforce the dominance of Chinese equipment from companies like Huawei. This is particularly important as the National Telecommunications & Information Administration (NTIA) prepares to release  its National Spectrum Strategy (NSS) implementation plan, which will dictate how the U.S. approaches licensing spectrum including in the lower 3 GHz band.

A handful of legacy wireless carriers in the U.S. have used the rationale of global spectrum “harmonization” to justify reserving the lower 3 GHz band for exclusively licensed, high-powered use. They claim we are behind China on 5G deployment, and this is the only way to catch up. However, the current reality of spectrum allocation and deployment, both in the U.S., China, and around the world, tells a completely different story.

First and foremost, the U.S. wireless carriers’ current mid-band spectrum holdings exceed the amount of spectrum dedicated to wireless carriers in China and in many European countries. For example, New Street Research found that U.S. carriers on average have more mid-band spectrum allocations than European carriers.

Source: New Street Research, February 2024

Furthermore, the U.S. has allotted hundreds of megahertz of mid-band spectrum in the 3.65 to 4 GHz range to U.S. carriers, whereas China has not yet allocated that spectrum. With that being the case, why would proponents of exclusive, high-power licensing claim they need more spectrum allotments? The answer is simple: the mobile network operators want you to believe there is a binary choice – clear the spectrum for our companies or lose to China, or Europe or somebody else.  But that’s a false choice. Coexistence and spectrum sharing, including techniques that allow federal incumbents to share bands with commercial operators, are better choices for putting spectrum to work for all.

Furthermore, if you look more closely at how China has used the lower 3 GHz spectrum band so far, you would be surprised by what you find. If you’ve listened to advocates of high-power, exclusive licensing here at home, you’d think the U.S. needs to play catch-up. However, while it’s true that China has opened 3.3-3.4 GHz for two of their carriers, they’ve limited those 100 megahertz of spectrum to low-power, indoor use to protect incumbent uses by the Chinese government. Moreover, China has continued to completely close off 3.1-3.3 GHz to commercial use. Therefore, U.S. wireless carriers do not have the facts on their side when claiming to need 100 MHz worth of exclusively licensed mid-band spectrum for high-powered use in order to catch up to China. Neither approach – whether it’s the exclusive, high-power licensing supported by legacy carriers or China’s limitation of mid-band spectrum to indoor, low-power transmission – are right for the United States. We are a global leader in dynamic, locally licensed spectrum sharing that is not constrained to indoor use, as exemplified by the widely deployed Citizens Broadband Radio Service (CBRS), and we should put that technology to work in the lower 3 GHz band. It will drive greater technological innovation and ensure widespread market competition without sacrificing vital U.S. military applications.