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Winning the Global Broadband Race

Everyone should review the new analysis of the global state of the next generation of wireless broadband and feel some source of pride. After lagging behind for a number of years in the deployment of 5G wireless broadband, the United States has now pulled into a tie for first place. In one year, America advanced two places even while other countries, such as South Korea and China were running hard to stay in the lead to claim the mantle of this broadband victory. But the work here is not over. The challenge now is making sufficient mid-band spectrum available for 5G use. 

While “5G” sounds very tech-opaque, it is actually a broadband system of systems that will work with previous technologies, but that also requires new infrastructure, including small antennas, as well as new investments in many miles of new fiber, cell towers and base stations. This mash-up of existing and new technologies, including Wi-Fi, and improvements in both wireless and wired connections, is the next generation of broadband. For example, 5G providers will continue to use wireline infrastructure to backhaul data between the backbone and the local networks. There will be more antennas in more places that will allow more wireless connectivity where it makes sense, particularly in cities. This ubiquity of high speeds, a hundred times faster than 4G, will enable more of everything valued in broadband and open the world to promised technological advancements such as remote surgery, and tactile real-time feedback for robotics and self-driving vehicles. 

But a key element for 5G to deliver on all its promises is more spectrum. Spectrum is the invisible band of airwaves over which wireless communications carry bits of information. For example, a person tunes in a car radio to a certain channel, or frequency, and they hear the information on that frequency of spectrum. But there is a limited supply of those frequencies just like the channels on the radio. Too much programming on the same spectrum and interference destroys its ability to be valuable. Some of the best spectrum swaths for this raw material are referred to as the “mid-band” of spectrum.  Greater access to clear mid-band spectrum is what will allow the U.S. to stay ahead in the race. 

The FCC has already made great progress in freeing up valuable spectrum in the high bands, but the U.S. still lags in making spectrum available for 5G. The FCC needs to establish a continuous supply of spectrum via auctions, on a schedule that will provide a regular flow of low, mid and high bands of spectrum. They must keep unlicensed bands open and available as well. But these moves alone do not guarantee success. Government policies need to make sure that the spectrum that is made available is being used optimally so that all that need it can get to it. Making more spectrum available via the free market allows for this resource to be allocated to its most efficient purpose, particularly when government policies are in concert, and not opposed, to that goal. 

The race is on. The option for the U.S. is to either win or fall behind, ceding the future to our global competitors.