Modernizing Spectrum Allocation to Ensure U.S. Security in the Twenty-First Century
Spectrum policy is not a fight between commercial interests and national security. That binary frame is a false and dangerous dichotomy in the twenty-first century, when U.S. national security derives from economic strength and technological innovation as much as traditional sources of power.
As described in the first two white papers in this series, economic strength, technological leadership, and commercial vitality are fundamental to national security, particularly in the digital era, when 5G connects the cyber and physical domains as never before. China recognizes this, which is why it is seeking to dominate the technology of the twenty-first century. Earlier reports in this series discussed national security and global technological competition. This paper lays out specific recommendations for twenty-first century security change.
The ubiquitous connectivity that 5G provides is central to twenty-first century national security. That makes adequate radio frequency spectrum for commercially licensed 5G use—particularly the mid-band spectrum that is ideal for high-capacity, wide-area 5G deployments—also central to national security. This licensed spectrum will constitute the backbone of the 5G future. Presently, the United States has a significant shortage of licensed mid-band spectrum allocated to 5G when compared to China and other countries, and China is projected to further widen that disparity in the coming years.
This growing spectrum gap threatens to harm the United States in global technology development and threatens the assurance of a robust, trusted supplier base for the future connected world. The mid-band spectrum gap is a significant national security problem, as it could facilitate China’s ambitions to shape twenty-first century technologies and to establish a dominant position in global networks. This dominance could enable military and strategic superiority. If China leads the 5G era, its state-supported “national champion” tech companies will play a dominant role, and in that scenario, there are no weapons systems, technology bans, or mitigation strategies that could defend U.S. and allied security interests.
This series has argued that the United States faces an urgent security need to reallocate spectrum for commercial 5G use. The federal government has worked closely with industry experts to do this before and now needs to do it again. The solution to the U.S. licensed spectrum shortage consists of four elements:
- Restore spectrum auction authority to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) immediately and take near-term steps to free up commercial licensed spectrum in the lower three-gigahertz (GHz) band.
- Develop a roadmap for identifying additional mid-band spectrum for wide-area 5G and operationalize that roadmap with specific deadlines and concrete plans for reallocation. From start to finish, this process will take several years, so it needs to start now. The development of a new National Spectrum Strategy can be foundational to this effort and should create new mechanisms for collaboration between government and private-sector experts.
- Amend existing statutory authorities to clarify and ensure that funds from spectrum auctions will compensate incumbent users for modernization and reallocation consistent with congressional oversight and Office of Management and Budget (OMB) responsibilities, building on the Commercial Spectrum Enhancement Act (CSEA) of 2003 that created the Spectrum Relocation Fund (SRF).
- In spectrum bands where sharing is necessary, use proven “static” spectrum sharing models that drive scale in large infrastructure investments and provide wide-area coverage for high-speed mobile broadband, while continuing research and development (R&D) and experimentation with finer-grain “dynamic” spectrum sharing, as well as developing new spectrum-using technologies.
First Mover Disadvantage
Many in the fields of business and technology recognize the “First Mover Advantage,” where the company to act first in using a new technology gains an edge over its competitors. In deploying 5G, the United States is now experiencing what might be called “first mover disadvantage.” For much of the twentieth century, the United States moved quickly to make use of spectrum for government and defense purposes. At that time, there was little nongovernmental demand for spectrum resources. Commercial uses were largely limited to radio and television broadcasts and niche functions, such as taxi radios and amateur (or “ham”) radio operators. There was little opportunity cost or competition when it came to spectrum allocation.
This changed in the 1990s with advances in mobile radio technology unleashed commercial demand for spectrum. Shifting spectrum to higher-value uses was challenging then and is more difficult today. Other countries that did not move as quickly in the twentieth century to assign spectrum resources for government uses have avoided the “first mover disadvantage” and do not face the challenge of long-established incumbents that the United States does. This means that even though the United States did well in its initial allocation of spectrum (primarily high-band millimeter wave spectrum) in the first phases of the race to deploy 5G, that advantage is being eroded as demands for spectrum have grown and U.S. allocation of mid-band spectrum has stalled.
The pressure to reallocate spectrum is created by the central role of 5G in the twenty-first century digital economy. 5G is foundational for the digitization that is the key to future economic and military power. It is the product of new, interdependent technologies that undergird the 5G era, such as quantum computing, cloud services, and artificial intelligence. Its capability to deliver fast, low-latency mobile broadband enables ubiquitous connectivity that will catalyze waves of economic growth and technological innovation for decades.
5G is foundational for the digitization that is the key to future economic and military power.
5G is not simply another upgrade to mobile phone service to better stream video. Instead, it constitutes a complete overhaul of the architecture of mobile connectivity. This new architecture is what gives 5G the low latency and high speed and capacity that will enable cutting-edge industrial uses in manufacturing, logistics, healthcare, and an array of other fields, including the provision of fixed wireless broadband service. To use another historical analogy, when the internet was commercialized, no one could predict the uses it would be put to or the immense increase in wealth it would create. Opening a new space creates opportunities for innovators and entrepreneurs that are not yet apparent. 5G connectivity will provide powerful new commercial and technological tools that will confer advantages to countries that lead its development. Without adequate 5G services, the United States will be slower to grow and innovate than its competitors—particularly China—and without access to sufficient spectrum, 5G use will be hobbled.
In the future, advances in dynamic sharing may provide additional opportunities to maximize spectrum capabilities, but these approaches will not be ready in the near term and they present other complexities which may limit their usefulness. Better antennae and processors are increasing the efficiency of spectrum use, but not yet enough to compensate for legacy allocations. Solving the commercial spectrum shortage for 5G cannot wait for these technological advances to develop and mature.
This is an increasingly acute problem, and any solution needs to recognize the dependence of national security on innovation. The United States needs a process of gradual reallocation of the mid-band spectrum that other countries are assigning to 5G. The United States should lead the 5G spectrum alignment with its partners. This will provide a global market for trusted suppliers who otherwise risk being overwhelmed by state-supported Chinese competitors. The United States needs a careful strategy for reallocating spectrum from legacy assignments to meet the needs of digitization. Fortunately, there are existing ways to make more spectrum available for commercial use without degrading important government and military uses. U.S. spectrum policy should focus on these steps.
The clearest evidence of the need for change is that U.S. spectrum allocations increasingly differ from the rest of the world in the mid-band spectrum that is crucial for 5G. The outcomes of the upcoming World Radio Conference (WRC), hosted in Dubai from November 20 to December 15, 2023, will be a good indicator of the direction the United States should take. This difference in allocations risks damaging the initial U.S. advantage in 5G deployment and would undo much of the progress made in building a trustworthy 5G supply chain. A lack of flexibility in rethinking spectrum use will damage national security—not in the distant future but within the next few years.
Past Spectrum Management and Reallocation Processes
In recent years, the U.S. spectrum management process has become more difficult. Reallocation efforts are complex and need to balance the needs of various stakeholders, including incumbent users and potential new uses, to best serve the larger national interest. The risks from potential gridlock in reallocation are damage to the U.S. economy, harm to the United States in its technology competition with China, and consequent damage to U.S. national security interests. There are, however, a number of successful precedents for modernizing spectrum allocations, since this problem is not new. These precedents include the following reallocation reforms:
- The SRF established by the Commercial Spectrum Enhancement Act of 2003: The SRF streamlined the reallocation of federal spectrum to commercial uses. Under the CSEA, federal users estimate the costs associated with relocating their systems to different spectrum or modifying their systems to accommodate sharing. When the FCC auctions that spectrum, proceeds from the auction are deposited into the SRF, and federal entities can apply to have their relocation costs reimbursed from the fund.
- American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 and National Broadband Plan of 2010: The Recovery Act and subsequent broadband policies freed spectrum for wireless broadband and helped drive a substantial increase in access to high-speed wired or wireless internet. The FCC’s plan sought to ensure competition and to free up 500 megahertz (MHz) of radio spectrum for wireless broadband use within 10 years.
- The Middle-Class Tax Relief and Job Creation Act:The act authorized the FCC to conduct incentive auctions to repurpose spectrum. Incentive auctions encourage holders of spectrum to relinquish it in exchange for a share of the auction’s proceeds.
- The MOBILE NOW Act of 2018: The act boosts the development of next-generation gigabit wireless broadband services, including 5G, by ensuring more spectrum is identified for private-sector use and by reducing the red tape associated with building broadband networks.
These reforms and other initiatives have led to the following spectrum allocations:
- Advanced Wireless Services (AWS-3) Auction (2014–2015): The AWS-3 auction sold rights for wireless services in the 1.7 and 2.1 GHz bands, repurposing some federal and nonfederal spectrum for commercial mobile use. This auction generated $45 billion in revenue.
- Citizens Broadband Radio Service (CBRS) Band (2015): The FCC adopted rules for an experimental shared commercial use of the 3550–3700 MHz band in 2015 and auctioned priority access licenses in this band in 2020. CBRS has demonstrated the difficulty of experimental sharing regimes.
- Broadcast Television Spectrum Incentive Auction (2016–2017): This auction repurposed 84 MHz of spectrum, with 70 MHz for licensed use and another 14 MHz for unlicensed use. Most of this spectrum went to wireless carriers to support the expansion of 4G services and the rollout of 5G.
- C-Band Auction (2020): The FCC auction of 280 MHz of spectrum in the C-band (3.7–3.98 GHz) in December 2020 made it available for flexible use, mostly by mobile operators for 5G. This auction generated $81 billion in revenue for the United States Department of the Treasury.
- 6 GHz Band (2020): The FCC opened the 6 GHz band for unlicensed use, doubling the amount of mid-band spectrum available for wireless internet. Given this allocation, the United States presently has more mid-band spectrum allocated for unlicensed use than any other country, including China, but this allocation does not address the licensed spectrum gap.
- 3.45–3.55 GHz band auction (2023): The FCC auctioned 100 MHz of mid-band spectrum for 5G, which had previously been used exclusively for military radar systems and other federal uses. This auction produced $22 billion in revenue for the United States.
These examples provide two lessons for how to proceed with reallocation initiatives. The first and most important is the need to create a formal, whole-of-government process to manage reallocation over the long term, beginning now since the need is urgent and these efforts will take years. The most important is to recognize the essential roles of the White House and Congress to provide oversight and incentives for that reallocation process; unless there is pressure from above, incumbents may employ tactics they have used in the past, such as simply “slow rolling” reallocation or inflating reallocation costs.
The Biden administration is developing a national spectrum strategy to study at least 1,500 MHz of spectrum for possible reallocation, but “study” is a worrisomely passive term that is not a substitute for action, particularly given that reallocation in the United States faces many obstacles not found in other countries. A study alone does not capture the urgency of the problem. Any new effort should include safeguards that take incumbent needs into account and, as with the precedent set with the SRF, compensate them for change. The strategy should lay out a roadmap and timeline for reallocation to allow companies and agencies to begin planning for change, without slowing down the near-term progress that is already underway.
Perhaps the most prominent predecessor of this effort is the Bush administration’s 2003 Spectrum Policy initiative, which aimed to promote efficient use of spectrum. The initiative led to the establishment of a spectrum policy for the twenty-first century that was based on a series of recommendations and was intended to improve spectrum management. Presidential memorandums issued by President Obama in 2010 and 2013 continued this trend for spectrum.
The Bush National Spectrum Strategy established a Federal Spectrum Task Force to advise spectrum policy and provide long-term assessments of future spectrum usage. It sought, with mixed results, to develop new methods for spectrum access, such as moving from command-and-control approaches to more market-oriented allocation mechanisms like spectrum auctions, leasing, or secondary markets. It also called for increased federal R&D on improving spectrum efficiency, sharing, and access. This laid the groundwork for many of the current policies to optimize spectrum use.
Recommendations to Address the U.S. Licensed Spectrum Shortage
Implementation of any spectrum strategy will take years since it involves investment decisions, the development and production of new technologies, and international coordination. Assurances and certainty are needed both by companies to plan investment and R&D, and by government agencies to ensure that they will not be asked to move frequencies every few years and can continue to deliver essential services. In particular, the modernization of defense spectrum-using technologies needs to be part of any plan, as with the upcoming Airborne Warning and Control System (AWACS) modernization. Defense modernization creates opportunities that spectrum auctions can help pay for. Although various factors can make it costly and complex to upgrade or move, the failure to allocate more spectrum to licensed commercial 5G will give a strategic advantage to U.S. competitors and opponents and damage U.S. national security. Recognition of this should accelerate development of the national strategy.
The authors recommend the following four actions to address the U.S. licensed mid-band spectrum shortage:
- Restore the FCC’s spectrum auction authority immediately and take near-term steps to free up licensed spectrum in the lower 3 GHz band.
First, Congress needs to reauthorize the FCC’s spectrum auction authority, which is the indispensable underpinning of U.S. spectrum policy. For the first time since this innovative authority changed global spectrum allocation three decades ago, Congress failed in March 2023 to renew the authority to conduct spectrum auctions. As discussed in prior papers, this failure deprives the United States of a valuable spectrum management tool that gave it global advantage and makes it impossible for the United States to lead global spectrum harmonization efforts.
Next, the United States should open a portion of the lower 3 GHz band for wide-area licensed commercial use. Throughout the world, dozens of countries operate full-power 5G networks in the 3.3–3.45 GHz range, and there is no reason to prohibit such operations in the United States. In more than 30 of those countries—including U.S. neighbor Mexico, as well as crucial U.S. defense allies and partners like Japan, South Korea, the Philippines, Taiwan, and multiple NATO allies—these commercial 5G operations coexist with the same U.S. military radar systems that use this band in the United States.
In November 2021, Congress approved funds through the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act for the Department of Defense (DOD) and National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) to study the 3.1–3.45 GHz band, ascertain how to make it available for shared federal and nonfederal use, and identify frequencies for auction. When it is released, the report may shed light on some of the specific technical challenges that will need to be overcome to free up the top end of that band, 3.3–3.45 GHz, for commercial 5G use. The administration should act on these challenges with urgency. In particular, NTIA should make explicit in the National Spectrum Strategy that this band will be made available for commercial use, and the FCC should support the industry-government collaboration that will be necessary to enable this reallocation. The FCC could direct its security advisory committee, the Communications Security, Reliability, and Interoperability Council—which includes NTIA, DOD, and other government and industry experts—to develop concrete transition recommendations drawing on our partners’ and allies’ use of this band for 5G.
These near-term steps are especially necessary as the U.S. delegation prepares for the WRC. Absent FCC spectrum auction authority, and with the appearance of intransigent gridlock in the lower 3 GHz band, the U.S. delegation will be negotiating with no practical leverage at the WRC as China seeks to align global spectrum bands with its own domestic allocations. This would harm U.S. leadership in 5G and provide an opportunity for Chinese vendors to exploit first mover advantage in creating products for the globally harmonized 5G bands.
- Develop a roadmap for identifying additional mid-band spectrum for wide area 5G and operationalize that roadmap with specific deadlines and concrete plans for reallocation; the development of a National Spectrum Strategy can be foundational to this effort and should create new mechanisms for collaboration between government and private sector experts.
The National Spectrum Strategy, which is due for release by the end of this year, should reflect that spectrum and national security policy are inextricably connected and should explicitly recognize the mutually interdependent relationship between spectrum policy and national security policy.
To that end, first, the strategy should discuss the implications of Chinese global leadership in the 5G race, including the implications of China leading in global standards-setting bodies because of U.S. indecision over spectrum allocations. Second, the strategy should task the Departments of Defense, Justice, Commerce, and Homeland Security, along with the FCC, to issue a joint report sometime this year to advise the president on the security implications of China’s lead in allocating mid-band spectrum for 5G and on potential leadership in the deployment of 5G. This report should look at the national security effects of China leading international efforts to globally harmonize spectrum and the relative effects on technological innovation in China and the United States.
Finally, the strategy should call on government and industry to maximize collaboration at a technical level, which is where solutions to allocating and sharing spectrum will be found. Often, engineers representing diverse stakeholders across a spectrum issue are able to solve problems and facilitate reallocation that respects all interests. Good examples of this are the processes that facilitated the AWS-1 and AWS-3 reallocations, and the more recent America’s Mid-Band Initiative Team (AMBIT) approach from the 3.45–3.55 reallocation.
AMBIT relied on support from the private sector, DOD, and NTIA. These groups examined 34 geographic areas across the United States, identified operations in those areas for the particular band, and then created rules so that the wireless industry could gain access to the band in those 34 areas. Anywhere outside those geographic areas, wireless carriers were able to have full access to the spectrum. This ensured that incumbent users were still able to use the band while providing spectrum that was being underutilized for commercial use. In addition to acting immediately to begin freeing up the 3.3–3.45 GHz band, the government should build on these past successes by undertaking a comprehensive inventory of federal spectrum and convene engineers to identify reallocation possibilities, focusing initially on bands that many countries are already aligning for future 5G use such as 4 GHz, 7 GHz, and others. Early engagement on these bands would put the United States back into a strong position for future commercial allocations and would also provide lead time for finding creative solutions and planning the modernization.
The White House should operationalize this roadmap with specific deadlines and concrete plans for reallocation. It should work with Congress to enact a statutory elevation of the Commerce Department’s assistant secretary for telecommunications and information to the level of undersecretary. This change would provide NTIA the institutional heft to match its increased responsibilities. NTIA is the lead agency for the largest federal investment in broadband connectivity in U.S. history: the $42 billion Broadband Equity, Access, and Deployment program established in the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act of 2021. NTIA also leads numerous trusted supplier initiatives, including the $1.5 billion Public Wireless Supply Chain Innovation Fund established in the CHIPS Act intended to ensure U.S. leadership in establishing a diverse and competitive market for trusted suppliers in next-generation wireless. NTIA needs the authority and institutional heft to broker spectrum allocation decisions to advance national security and economic competitiveness.
- Amend existing statutory authorities to clarify and ensure that funds from spectrum auctions will compensate federal incumbent users for modernization and reallocation consistent with congressional oversight and OMB responsibilities, building on the CSEA of 2003 that established the SRF.
To end the zero-sum “trench warfare” approach found in U.S. spectrum policy discussions, leaders in government and industry should maximize, mutual benefits and potential technical innovation by collaborating on spectrum issues.
Auctions of exclusive licenses can provide both the impetus and the funding to help government agencies upgrade outdated spectrum systems. AWACS provides a timely example, as it uses spectrum across the 3 GHz band. AWACS is a candidate for an upgrade since the platforms have an average service age of over 40 years. The Commander of the United States Air Force Air Combat Command, General Mark Kelly, recently characterized the AWACS fleet as being “in hospice care,” and said the Air Force is 20 years late to acquire its replacement. The planned replacement, the E-7 Wedgetail, features radar used by allies that relies on lower frequency spectrum than the legacy AWACS system. This transition can help free up the lower 3 GHz band for 5G use, and spectrum auctions can help pay for these types of upgrades that further advance our military capabilities. The authors identify three opportunities to improve this process and enhance the government’s ability to work with industry and identify these mutually beneficial upgrades that make more effective use of spectrum resources.
First, the president should direct federal agencies to frame all spectrum deliberations within the government and with industry as an effort to maximize spectrum capabilities rather than fight over spectrum as a scarce resource. All stakeholders have shared national security and economic interests in U.S. technological leadership, which relies on finding new ways to maximize spectrum capabilities and allocating spectrum to its best use. Federal agencies should focus affirmatively and explicitly on spectrum capabilities and technical advances.
Second, Congress and the administration should increase incentives for reallocating spectrum. Congress should build upon the precedent of the CSEA of 2003 that created the SRF and grant new authorities for the federal government to compensate users for modernization and reallocation expenses consistent with congressional oversight and OMB responsibilities. New legislation can improve the SRF process. The SRF was intended to reimburse federal agencies’ expenses—including those for R&D, engineering studies, and economic analyses—for relocating from or sharing certain bands. Creating new incentives that could allow agencies to be appropriately reimbursed at higher rates would provide stronger incentives for government users currently located in valuable bands for 5G to update their equipment and move to other appropriate frequencies. Likewise, the SRF should not be restricted to provide for comparable systems. Instead, agencies should have clear incentives to use SRF funds to improve capabilities by upgrading equipment rather than simply replacing existing equipment with comparable capabilities.
Third, upgrading federal networks would further benefit if federal agencies’ procurement cycles, which often run 10–20 years, could become more closely aligned with the commercial development cycle, which often runs 3–5 years, and if procurement rules provided incentives for spectral efficiency. Although streamlining procurement will be difficult to authorize and achieve, this alignment would help federal agencies take advantage of the newest technologies to improve spectral efficiency and sharing.
- In spectrum bands where sharing is necessary, use proven “static” spectrum sharing models to drive scale in large infrastructure investments and provide wide-area coverage for high-speed mobile broadband, while continuing R&D and experimentation with finer grain “dynamic” spectrum sharing, as well as developing new spectrum-using technologies.
Sharing of spectrum may be increasingly necessary as the next generation of telecommunications emerges, 6G, which will require even more spectrum resources and is already in development, including in China. The government and industry should collaborate on two initiatives to maximize spectrum use in any given band. The first should examine how to advance spectrum sharing regimes; when clearing a spectrum band for commercial use is not practical, coordinated sharing through proven methods can be a solution. Government and industry should collaborate to advance “static” sharing, in which each party is restricted to using the shared spectrum in specific geographic locations. These sharing methods provide coordinated access and certainty, and technological developments are increasing the precision of this geographic spectrum sharing. Such sharing of spectrum may be increasingly necessary as the next generation of telecommunications, 6G, emerges, which will require even more spectrum resources and is already in development, including in China.
Over the long term, testing and experimentation on “dynamic” spectrum sharing—in which each party’s use of frequencies changes dynamically according to real-time needs—may eventually overcome existing practical impediments to real-world implementation (e.g., complexity, uncertainty, and coverage limits) that prevent deployment of promising 5G use cases like autonomous transportation and telehealth applications. The ongoing CBRS experiment has shown the difficulties with dynamic sharing arrangements. For now, sharing initiatives to promote 5G should focus on further advances of static geographic sharing mechanisms that provide proven benefits.
The second collaborative initiative should support R&D efforts to advance spectral efficiency for the benefit of both commercial and government networks. Improving spectral efficiency involves finding technical solutions to increase the amount of data that can be transmitted reliably over given spectrum. As FCC Chairwoman Rosenworcel has said, improving the efficiency of receivers is one possibility to maximize spectrum use. As demonstrated through the delays in C-band due to Federal Aviation Administration concerns about outdated altimeters in aircraft, this evaluation of receiver performance should be done well ahead of a reallocation transition. This should involve not only finding technological improvements for spectral efficiency, but also establishing mechanisms for implementation in existing networks to take advantage of newfound efficiencies.
Improving spectral efficiency involves finding technical solutions to increase the amount of data that can be transmitted reliably over given spectrum.
Finally, policymakers should create a formal mechanism to take advantage of advances in spectral efficiency and sharing into federal procurement processes. Demand for spectrum will increase significantly in the next decade and creating a formal method for incorporating modern technology to improve spectral efficiency and spectrum sharing would help maximize the capacity of spectrum employed by all users, both federal and commercial.
All parties public and private—Congress, the White House, the FCC, NTIA, DOD and Commerce Department leadership, network operators, equipment manufacturers, and chip designers—need to come together now to ensure there is sufficient spectrum allocated for current and next-generation mobile network technologies, so the United States can maintain its global technological leadership. This will be key for success in any competition with China. As China seeks to dominate 5G technologies, the United States must address the growing shortage of commercial licensed spectrum if it is to promote its security interests for the long term.
James A. Lewis is senior vice president, holds the Pritzker Chair, and director of the Strategic Technologies Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C. Clete Johnson is a senior fellow with the Strategic Technologies Program at CSIS.
This report is made possible by support from CTIA and its member companies.