Next Steps to Close the Gap with China on Licensed Spectrum for Commercial 5G

In a paper series completed this summer, we argued that the United States faces an urgent security need to allocate 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. Among other things, we found:

  • Spectrum policy is not a fight between commercial interests and national security. That binary frame is a false and dangerous dichotomy in the 21st century when U.S. national security derives from economic strength and technological innovation as much as traditional sources of power. 
  • Economic strength, technological leadership, and commercial vitality have always been fundamental to national security, but this is particularly the case in the 5G era where the cyber and physical domains are connected as never before, creating new vulnerabilities that threaten national security.
  • In the digital era, our commercial communications networks are the lifeline to numerous other critical infrastructure functions, as well as defense and weapons systems, so our components must be trusted and our supply chains resilient.  
  • China recognizes this, which is why it is seeking to dominate 5G and thus sell and deploy China-produced technology throughout the world. China seeks to do this by leading the world – and far surpassing the United States – in licensed spectrum for commercial use, which provides the primary arteries of wireless connectivity that will nourish the 5G future.  
  • China’s lead in licensed commercial spectrum allocation is particularly acute for mid-band spectrum, which is ideal for high-capacity, wide-area 5G deployments, with which the United States faces a drastic shortage allocated to 5G as compared to China and other countries. China is projected to further widen that disparity in the coming years.
  • The United States leads China and the rest of the world in unlicensed spectrum allocation, which is why Wi-Fi and other local wireless technologies such as Bluetooth are a U.S. success story. The United States need to level the playing field in licensed spectrum as well, so that the country can lead the future in the wide-area wireless networks that are the indispensable foundation of the mobile and remote connectivity capabilities at the heart of the 5G future.
  • The growing licensed spectrum gap threatens to harm the United States in global technology development and threatens the assurance of a robust, trusted, economically competitive supplier base for the future connected world.  The licensed mid-band spectrum gap is a significant national security problem, as it could facilitate China’s ambitions to shape 21st century technologies and to establish a dominant position in global networks.  This dominance could enable military, intelligence, and strategic superiority.
  • More broadly, if China leads the 5G era, its state-supported “national champion” tech companies will play a dominant role.  In that scenario, there are no weapons systems, technology bans, or mitigation strategies that could defend U.S. and allied security interests.
  • This would pose an existential threat to the United States and its allies as free market democracies, as the technologies and capabilities that 5G will enable will have profound impacts on military force projection, cyber operations, and information operations.  If China leads this 5G future, the Chinese Communist Party, and its autocratic followers – Russia, North Korea, Iran, and even Hamas – will threaten to shape our technology future in favor of social control and autocratic aggression, thereby undermining the core security and societal interests of the United States and its allies.
  • Further, by dominating the world’s 5G economy and infrastructure, and coupled with Artificial Intelligence and quantum capabilities which the PRC also seeks to lead, our trade and defense secrets can be laid bare and our infrastructures, from water to gas to banking, vulnerable to sabotage and disruption.  And as we have learned from recent global conflicts, if you control the digital infrastructure, you control the war.       

The National Spectrum Strategy requires evaluation of specific spectrum bands for potential 5G use in the United States – the lower 3 GHz band and portions of the 7 GHz and 8 GHz bands – and the World Radio Conference provided clear openings to harmonize those same bands on a broader global scale.  With this new clarity on these bands, we can now focus intently on concrete steps to close the licensed mid-band spectrum gap and maintain crucial U.S. leadership in the future connected world.  How specifically can the United States take a proactive and influential posture globally and implement a positive vision for 5G that will promote U.S. and allied interests in free market democracy?

As we proceed with further study of these issues, particularly in the immediate coming months of the two-year study period identified through Presidential directive, we will explore the following questions, with a final report to be released in March:

  • How do we effectively evaluate the national security risks of China leading in commercial licensed spectrum, 5G, and beyond? We must consider the most effective vehicle for Congress and the Administration to make the risks of China’s leadership in 5G and the next generation of wireless clear and concrete.  This must include a discerning risk analysis of the strategic role of spectrum policy. This could involve, for instance, expert studies and recommendations from public/private partnerships, along with a formal Intelligence Community report, on the economic and security risks of inaction to counter China’s initiatives.  These studies and reports could analyze the relationships between spectrum allocation and various 5G and 6G use cases that will affect the supply chains and technology environments of the future, both for commercial entities and for the warfighter.
  • What is the articulable goal to be achieved by evaluating the spectrum identified in the Strategy? While the Strategy calls for the study of 2,786 megahertz of spectrum for potential commercial use, it unfortunately identifies zero megahertz for actionable reallocation for licensed 5G.  Reports have shown the U.S. will face a roughly 1,500-megahertz spectrum deficit in the next decade. Now is the time to set clear milestones for full-power, wide-area licensed spectrum access in the targeted bands—specifically, the lower 3 GHz and 7/8 GHz frequencies. 
  • What tangible, near-term processes can expand possibilities for commercial use of the lower 3 GHz band? Critical lessons can be learned from allied nations’ use of the lower 3 GHz band for 5G and from prior evaluations for its use in the United States. As the Strategy considers this spectrum for commercial use, we should aspire to a specific amount of spectrum to be made available for licensed, full-power commercial use—e.g., 150 megahertz. Where sharing is contemplated, FCC and NTIA should use its previously articulated definition of the term, which includes consideration of static sharing and recognizes that incumbent users may need to vacate, compress, or repack their systems. The further study of this band should take a forward-looking approach, expanding on the September 2023 Emerging Mid-Band Radar Spectrum Sharing (EMBRSS) Feasibility Assessment, to explore possibilities for commercial use of this band in the coming years.
  • How can we ensure a process on both the lower 3GHz and 7/8 GHz bands, with concrete milestones and deliverables? Together, NTIA and FCC manage the nation’s radio spectrum resources, with NTIA the lead agency on Federal spectrum and the FCC the regulator of commercial spectrum. These two agencies’ leadership authorities ensure that spectrum management, usage, and allocation decisions are coordinated, consistent, and reflect the needs of both Federal agencies and non-Federal users. Per President Biden’s Memorandum on Modernizing United States Spectrum Policy and Establishing a National Spectrum Strategy, the White House should ensure that NTIA can leverage the new Interagency Spectrum Advisory Council, with the participation of the FCC, to develop a roadmap to make spectrum resources available to continue United States leadership in advanced wireless technologies. This should include identifying at least 1,500 megahertz for repurposing, which may include spectrum currently allocated to Federal operations or to non-Federal operations.  This should include a framework for transparent collaboration and information sharing with industry, a clear escalation and dispute resolution process similar to the processes undertaken in the Team Telecom context, and incentives for network upgrades within the Spectrum Reallocation Fund.
  • How can we advance meaningful approaches to maximizing spectrum use in general? Over the long term, dynamic spectrum sharing is potentially a promising mechanism for spectrum management and for promoting efficient spectrum use, but the Strategy rightly recognizes that it is not yet ready to solve the near-term goals identified in the Strategy—including freeing up spectrum in the 3 GHz and 7/8 GHz bands. As we focus in the near term on implementing proven methods of static sharing, we can also evaluate and advance dynamic sharing in experimental testbeds for longer-term innovations.
  • How can the U.S. approach to spectrum decision making and the incentive structures reinforcing that process align to the economic and national security threats of today, not of the past, to ensure that our strategic approach to spectrum management will adapt and endure into the next generation? We must establish clear policy principles for decision makers that go beyond technical data. Operators, engineers, and models will continue to disagree on where the bright lines are for spectrum allowances, and we should continue to pursue the establishment of risk-based standards to eliminate the uncertainties inherent in spectrum testing.  But, equally imperative, we need guiding policy principles on spectrum management that the new Interagency Spectrum Advisory Council will rely on to guide their collective decision making to avoid the zero-sum game of one agency versus another. If we recognize the national security benefits of freeing up additional spectrum for commercial use, this principle must inform the consensus-building process. Further, spectrum managers should be rewarded in performance evaluations for increasing efficiencies in spectrum usage, and for identifying creative ways to free up spectrum for dual commercial/defense use. Until we modernize our incentive structure to reward spectrum decision makers for getting to yes, we will continue to play zero-sum games – which are a loser not only for our nation’s ability to lead the globe in technical innovation in the 5G/6G era, but for our national security as well.