Thursday, November 12, 2015

The Spectrum Pipeline for 5G Needs to Be Accelerated

By Gregory J. Vogt, Visiting Fellow

Another American “pipeline” needing government approvals is rarely in the press, unlike the Keystone pipeline, which we’ve heard a lot about. This other “pipeline” is designed to identify, evaluate, and reallocate spectrum for future mobile broadband use. With recent FCC actions concerning above-24 GHz spectrum, and Congress’ proposed Spectrum Pipeline Act, government appears to be recognizing that the spectrum pipeline needs to be constructed. This is good but the efforts are timid and woefully slow to meet projected demand.

Although the wireless industry has just deployed so-called 4th Generation (4G), or Long Term Evolution (LTE), technology, it is not too soon to actively pursue making available the spectrum the next generation (5G) will need beginning around 2020.

It is now well known that wireless communications produces enormous consumer welfare benefits, including increases in GDP, investment, and jobs. It also produces significant secondary positive impacts in markets and applications that rely on mobile to improve productivity.

But history has shown that significant spectrum reallocation has taken, on average, 13 years to deploy. It is therefore essential for government to take actions to accelerate the spectrum “pipeline” for 5G. Indeed, this is necessary to maintain American leadership in deploying wireless broadband, not only for faster and more robust Internet applications, but to accommodate the predicted explosion surrounding the Internet of Things.

The FCC is therefore to be applauded for adopting a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (NPRM) to reallocate above-24 GHz spectrum for flexible use, including mobile broadband use, that can accommodate, in part, spectrum needs for 5G wireless. The FCC identified the 28, 37, 39, and 64-71 GHz spectrum blocks as potentially lucrative spectrum to be re-allocated, but identified certain parameters and sharing that it stated would be necessary to accommodate the commercial wireless allocation.
But even this laudable new proceeding likely foreshadows endemic government foot-dragging. It was a little more than a year between adoption of a Notice of Inquiry and the NPRM. It is unclear whether this reallocation timeline will be much different from past lengthy spectrum delays. High-band spectrum, as Commissioner Rosenworcel termed it, has “propagation challenges,” making it useful for high capacity data, but only at very short distances. Thus, this spectrum has the potential for fulfilling some of the needs for 5G. But it does not fulfill the full range of demand for 5G, including more low and mid-band spectrum, as CTIA has recently indicated.

Some Commissioners have raised serious questions concerning whether the proceeding is broad enough to meet 5G needs. And the FCC appears to be resigned to government-commercial spectrum sharing, rather than dedicated commercial use.

The Bi-partisan Budget Act of 2015, now signed by the President, includes the Spectrum Pipeline Bill, which would require identification of 30 MHz of below-3 GHz spectrum for reallocation to commercial use, plus identification of a total of 100 MHz below 6 GHz. Although this effort moves in the right direction, the deadline for the 30 MHz spectrum auction to begin is 2024, well past the expected rollout of 5G; mere identification of the remaining 100 MHz is just as late, scheduled in two tranches for 2022 and 2024. This meager effort is disappointing and codifies into law the overly long reallocation process.
More promising are actions in the Senate. Senator Marco Rubio (R-FL), together with Republican co-sponsors, have proposed the Wireless Innovation Act of 2015, S. 1618. That proposed legislation would require government to identify at least 200 MHz of spectrum below 5 GHz for reallocation to private use, with the earliest auction required by 2018. It also includes incentives to government agencies to encourage giving up spectrum.

The Wi-Fi Innovation Act, S. 2505, co-sponsored by Senators Rubio and Booker (D-NJ), and would require co-allocation of the 5.8 GHz band, currently allocated for intelligent transportation services, to also include unlicensed wireless use. The co-allocation mandate is conditioned on FCC findings that dynamic sharing techniques are available so that the dual uses can coexist without harmful interference.

The proposed Wireless Innovation Act recognizes that government/non-government spectrum sharing is potentially inefficient and may undercut spectrum goals. Sharing proposals often fail to rectify government’s often inefficient use of spectrum, as I have explained in my recent Perspectives. Senator Rubio would reassert the congressional preference for clearing and reallocating government spectrum, relying on sharing only where necessary to preserve essential public safety and national security spectrum uses.

So it is laudable that the spectrum “pipeline” is under construction, and that policymakers recognize the need for prompter action. But the efforts are dilatory and likely not sufficient to meet market needs. For the good of the American consumer and the nation’s economy, let’s hope that policymakers can significantly advance and complete construction faster than it has been able to accomplish in the past.

[NOTE: This piece was written before still somewhat sketchy details of draft legislation prepared by Sen. John Thune began to emerge. Based on press reports, it appears that the draft legislation may address in a positive way some of the concerns expressed in my blog. I will likely have more to say about Sen. Thune's proposal as more details emerge.]