Congress Must Restore Spectrum Auction Authority | Citizens Against Government Waste

Congress Must Restore Spectrum Auction Authority

The WasteWatcher

As the appropriations bills have finally started to move forward for fiscal year 2024, there are other critical items that the 118th Congress must address as soon as possible. 

On March 9, 2024, it will be a year since the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) lost its authorization to auction spectrum licenses.  When the authority expired on March 9, 2023, it was the first time since 1994 that the FCC was unable to set up new spectrum license auctions.   While legislation has been introduced to extend and reauthorize this authority, without its passage, the future of spectrum policy remains in limbo, which will have an impact on global telecommunications.

These auctions have generated more than $259 billion to the federal treasury.  One of the many benefits of these proceeds has been the creation of FirstNet, the country’s first dedicated first responder communications network.  The initial buildout of FirstNet has been completed in all 50 states, 5 territories, and the District of Columbia, and delivered high-speed access to areas of the country “that previously had little or no broadband coverage.”

There are several factors at play in the stalemate over reauthorizing spectrum auction authority.  There are the national security implications of restructuring spectrum allocations held by agencies like the Department of Defense and repurposing that spectrum for either licensed exclusive use or shared use with the private sector.  There are also differences of how much spectrum should be used for unlicensed use, including by Wi-Fi connected devices and Bluetooth-enabled devices.  As more licensed and unlicensed spectrum-use devices come into the market, there will be more strain on existing allocations, particularly as the mobile industry moves toward developing 6th generation (6G) devices, and the unlicensed industry adopts the newest wireless standard, Wi-Fi 7, which promises faster top speeds and improved performance in congested areas.

Both wireless 5G and Wi-Fi 7 will expand the ability for mobile computing and wireless communications, which makes the use cases for both licensed and unlicensed spectrum important.  Licensed spectrum has opened a world of mobile computing using 4G and now 5G devices, and often this is the only device some people use to access the internet.  Developers are working on the next generation 6G, which is expected to continue to improve capacity and latency issues. 

A spectrum policy that balances licensed, unlicensed, and even shared spectrum allocations is important, particularly since mobile services are offloaded to unlicensed spectrum Wi-Fi connected networks in homes and workplaces, and unlicensed spectrum is used to connect Bluetooth-enabled devices like home printers and devices that require unlicensed radio frequencies to operate like baby monitors, security camera systems, garage doors, televisions, and other technology using remote controls.

However, while industry is busy innovating to improve communications capabilities across the country, Congress sits on its hands and ignores the need for spectrum auction authority, which is essential to make that work a success.  On November 13, 2023, the White House released its National Spectrum Strategy, which tasks the FCC to work with the National Telecommunications and Information Administration to develop a coordinated  spectrum modernization effort.  Auction authority is critical for that plan to succeed as well.

As long as the FCC remains without spectrum auction authority, the U.S. will be at a disadvantage in global telecommunications policy, and America’s lead in developing and deploying new technology will be in jeopardy.  Unfortunately, given the log jam in Congress over auction authority and other issues, it does not appear that the problem will be resolved anytime soon. 


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