Federal Spectrum Turf War Could Hand 5G Victory to China | Citizens Against Government Waste
The WasteWatcher: The Staff Blog of Citizens Against Government Waste

Federal Spectrum Turf War Could Hand 5G Victory to China

The WasteWatcher is the staff blog of Citizens Against Government Waste (CAGW) and the Council for Citizens Against Government Waste (CCAGW). For questions, contact blog@cagw.org.


As the United States tries to win the global race to 5G, federal agencies should stop setting up roadblocks that could prevent a much-needed victory.  The Departments of Commerce, Defense, Education, and Transportation have filed objections to various proposals by the Federal Communications Commission’s (FCC) to repurpose federal spectrum for 5G, all of which will slow down progress and effectively give an advantage to other countries like China.

On Tuesday, July 16, 2019, the House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Communications and Technology held a hearing on “Our Wireless Future:  Building A Comprehensive Approach to Spectrum Policy.”  The hearing focused on ensuring that the U.S. remain in a position to lead the race to 5G deployment.  There was bipartisan criticism of the adverse impact on this effort caused by the infighting among federal agencies by Subcommittee Chairman Michael Doyle (D-Pa.) and Ranking Member Bob Latta (R-Ohio).  Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Frank Pallone (D-N.J.) concurred, stating, “This lack of coordination affects a mind-numbing list of important bands of spectrum.”

Not only have the four federal agencies lost sight of the importance of achieving 5G dominance, they are also choosing to ignore a 2012 law that authorized clearing certain portions of federal spectrum to allow the FCC to re-allocate and auction it for commercial use.  Indeed, they are making some absurd claims about what will happen if they no longer have the use of some or all of their spectrum.  The Department of Commerce has said that relinquishing spectrum used by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric would cost lives because it would reduce the ability to forecast the weather; the Department of Defense is hiding behind national security and refusing to share anything; the Department of Education is claiming that children will lose access to educational spectrum while the current use of that spectrum is under the FCC’s scrutiny for possible abuse; and the Department of Transportation (DOT) is also talking about how the use of spectrum under its control would save lives.  

The DOT-held spectrum at 5.9 GHz was allocated to the department in 2009 to be used solely for dedicated short-range communications (DSRC), which has to date has been deployed in very few vehicles.  Advocates for retaining the spectrum at DOT are now promoting a different technology that has yet to be adequately tested and may not be widely available for 8-10 years.  At the same time, proven technology that increases passenger safety being used in vehicles today includes automatic emergency braking, backup cameras, blind-spot warning, electronic stability control, forward collision warning, lane departure warning and lane keeping systems, light detection and ranging (LIDAR), rear automatic braking, and rear cross-traffic alerts.  These systems are radar or laser-based, meaning they have been developed without the need for the 5.9 GHz spectrum.

Supporters of keeping the spectrum at DOT are also calling for the retention of the entire 75 MHz in case any of the proposed technology becomes viable, rather than agreeing to retain 25-30 MHz as has been done in other countries.  The military also uses portions of this band, along with amateur services and some industrial, scientific and medical equipment.  To allow this spectrum to be put to its best and highest use, including the testing and deployment of any type of vehicle-to-vehicle communications, the FCC must take a fresh look at the new options and opportunities.

The turf war among federal agencies to keep spectrum that was allocated to them under very different circumstances is unfortunate and harmful.  It has either not been used as intended or can now be used for more important purposes.

Unless the infighting ends soon and the spectrum is auctioned for 5G deployment, U.S. economic and national security will be jeopardized, and our most dangerous adversaries could be given a massive technological advantage that will be difficult to overcome.

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