“Impeachment!” may blare from headlines and lead cable news shows, but there is another matter of far-reaching importance that should interest every American who uses technology to communicate. It is a matter that affects millions of jobs, trillions of dollars and the national security of our nation. Yet, it languishes; ensnared in the federal government’s regulatory morass that has stifled innovation for so long. The issue is 5G technology.
5G is the next, faster generation of improvements in communication speed and functions; employing a new wireless infrastructure to increase Internet speeds exponentially. According to the MIT Technology Review, 5G will “connect billions of machines, appliances, and sensors at low cost without draining their batteries.” In a true free market America, this technology would have deployed long ago, but government got in the way.
Unfortunately, the government has been engaged in a regulatory “slow walk” that has severely hampered the deployment of mid-band spectrum needed to deploy new 5G technologies. As Holman Jenkins wrote in The Wall Street Journal almost one year ago, on Dec. 7, 2018, 40 megahertz of mid-band spectrum “has been tied up in a bureaucratic standoff for nearly a decade, ever since the global-positioning industry, which operates in nearby bands, began yelping about interference.”
This regulatory lethargy has not only hampered innovation here in our country, but benefitted foreign governments who have moved faster than the United States.
The Wall Street Journal had reported a year earlier, in 2017, that the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) in 2009 received a $13 million appropriation from Congress, to prepare a “National Broadband Plan” that would help stimulate our economy. The goal was clear and direct — to open up dormant radio spectrum for new uses within six years; in other words, by 2015.
So here we are, four years beyond that deadline and there still is no plan in place, thanks to a convoluted approval process that languished for years at the Department of Commerce. The final decision now rests with the FCC, but it is unclear if FCC Chairman Ajit Pai is fully committed to truly moving the process forward. For the sake of our continued economic growth, and our nation’s leadership in communications technology, it is vital that he do so.
Mr. Pai has an admirable record of loosening regulatory edicts and red tape during his tenure as head of this strategic regulatory body. One of his first acts as chairman was to toss aside the Obama administration’s “Net Neutrality” rules that made the government the gatekeeper for the Internet.
Mr. Pai also led the way to approving the T-Mobile/Sprint merger that allowed these companies to provide more efficient services to customers. With regard to the 5G debate, he has strongly advocated against the idea of nationalizing its deployment.
Over the past year, there has been extensive discussion about the need to free up more mid-band spectrum quickly. 2019 was to be the year in which the FCC unveiled its “FAST Plan,” which includes making more mid-band spectrum available for 5G services. This also is the year in which Mr. Pai and President Trump held a joint press conference on 5G deployment, in which the president made clear that his administration “is focused on freeing up as much wireless spectrum as needed” (Trump White House Remarks, April 12, 2019).
Yet, despite these promises, and despite the soaring rhetoric and confident pledges, 2019 has so far been the year in which no new mid-band spectrum has become available. And Mr. Pai’s recent decision to delay the use of the C-Band until 2020, when the United States is already lagging behind other countries in mid-band spectrum availability, raises further concerns about his continued commitment to ensure U.S. leadership on this key matter.
It is unclear why the chairman has not yet made a decision on the L-band, where a large swath of prime, lower mid-band spectrum — 40 MHz of greenfield spectrum — uniquely suited for 5G could be freed up and deployed immediately. This 40 MHz swath of spectrum possesses both the coverage and capacity necessary for next-generation technologies and is ready to be deployed today — no auction necessary.
The L-Band presents the best opportunity right now to free up prime lower-mid-band spectrum in 2019, helping to advance the United States as the global race to 5G intensifies. We cannot afford to allow such valuable mid-band spectrum to lie fallow — especially when all that’s required to deploy it is a signed order from the chairman.
• Bob Barr is a former U.S. representative from Georgia.