The Economic Standard: Reallocating spectrum would benefit 5G networks

A new report out this week by information technology consultants at Accenture reaffirms the need for the U.S. to make more spectrum available to commercial wireless users. Doing so will expand 5G connectivity and remove barriers to innovation.

The report, which was commissioned by the Cellular Telecommunications and Internet Association (CTIA), examined the current state of radio spectrum allocations in the US and identified key band widths critical to expanding 5G networks and ending the current spectrum allocation imbalance between users. 

In particular, the report discusses three major bands of spectrum that are currently divided unequally between government, licensed and unlicensed users. They are:

  • Lower 3 GHz (3.1-3.45 GHz);
  • Mid 4 GHz (4.4-4.94 GHz); and 
  • 7/8 GHz (7.125-8.4 GHz).

These bands of spectrum are ideal for commercial 5G applications, but they are overwhelmingly restricted to government and unlicensed users. In fact, the report notes that the commercial wireless industry only has access to 5% of these frequencies. In contrast, unlicensed stakeholders have access to seven times that amount, and government users have access to as much as 12 times that amount. 

If allowed to remain, this imbalance could significantly undermine the ability of 5G networks to reach their full potential. Creating a steady pipeline of licensed spectrum at lower and mid-band frequencies is key to ensuring that the commercial wireless industry is able to keep up with consumer demand. 

The build-out of 5G infrastructure has already significantly expanded network capacity and reduced latency for consumers, providing them with superior services at faster speeds. However, this quick pace of innovation has placed new demands on networks, such as the need to accommodate more users with greater amounts of data. In the last year alone, mobile data traffic rose 11.2 trillion megabytes to 53.4 trillion megabytes. Connected 5G devices grew by 513% to 85 million, with one third of all Americans now owning a device. Experts now predict that by 2027, 90% of all mobile subscriptions in North America will use 5G networks. 

Such explosive market growth requires the bandwidth to support it and Congress has the power to make that happen. The report proposes repurposing “lower 3 GHz, mid 4 GHz, and 7 to 8.4 GHz” spectrum frequencies to reflect this growth in consumer demand. 

A more equal distribution of these special frequencies would allot commercial wireless users 1600 MHz, while providing unlicensed users 1910 MHz and government users 2150 MHz. Government and unlicensed users would still receive the majority of the spectrum allocations but with more balance relative to 5G applications. Government users would receive 1.34 times more spectrum than commercial wireless (down from 12 times the allotted amount) while unlicensed users would receive 1.19 times more spectrum (down from seven times the allotted amount).

Redistributing spectrum along these lines would better reflect changes in consumer demand and provide the commercial wireless industry with what it needs to help close the digital divide. In addition, more spectrum would allow for a quicker rollout of 5G networks and provide better quality coverage to consumers who need it. It would also generate more revenue for the treasury by allowing the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to host more auction sales. This money could then be used to help develop better network infrastructure and improve economic outcomes for all Americans. 

Spectrum allocation matters to numerous stakeholders, from government to the telecom industry. However, the issue matters most of all to ordinary Americans, whose lives are increasingly intertwined with the use of digital technology. Accenture’s report provides a blueprint for how spectrum can be shared more equally between these stakeholders in a way that makes everyone happy and maximizes the distribution of this scarce resource.

Published in The Economic Standard

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