Earlier this month, the Biden Administration released a fact sheet on the Action Plan to Accelerate Infrastructure. Among the numerous projects are plans to expand and improve Internet access. While pouring public funds into the problem is one route, a different, more efficacious approach would be to urge Congress to reauthorize the Federal Communications Commission’s spectrum authority — set to expire in December — and allocate unused portions to the expansion of 5G.
The term “5G” has been floating around for a while, with trials beginning in 2017 and the rollout of the first 5G mobile networks in 2019. 5G refers to the fifth generation of the internet — essentially, an upgraded version with faster speeds and expanded data capabilities. Consumers have embraced the next generation, with use rates of 68 percent. Wireless consumers cite the desire for 5G as their second to top reason for wanting to switch mobile carriers.
Since the spectrum is a finite resource, running out of the current spectrum and stymieing further expansion of 5G is a serious risk. Spectrum refers to radio frequencies that can carry signals. For most people, the spectrum impacts their ability to make calls, send texts or use any number of digital services. Wireless communications exist in three main sections of the entire spectrum: low-band, mid-band and high-band. These bands each have specific characteristics suited for wireless communications.
Mid-band serves as the best of both worlds by delivering the coverage of low-band with the capacity of high-band. These qualities make it uniquely capable of expanding 5G. Mid-band licenses can be attained via auctions that fall under the purview of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). Since the auctions fall under the FCC, the problem of spectrum scarcity could be easily resolved by authorizing more spectrum for 5G expansion.
Authorizing more mid-band spectrum for 5G expansion does more than just meet consumer demands. 5G drives economic growth and provides opportunity. According to an Accenture report, the creation of 5G networks is expected to create up to 4.5 million jobs. It’s also projected to generate $1.5 trillion in gross domestic product (GDP) for the U.S. economy over the 2020s.
5G expansion serves more than the economy; it can also meet the needs of areas that lack broadband. The FCC estimates that 19 million Americans still don’t have access to broadband at threshold speed —which refers to the speeds that would qualify internet as broadband. While that only accounts for 6 percent of the total population, as many as one in four individuals lack connectivity in rural areas. 5G will not only result in greater convenience for these populations but can also help to expand services that are increasingly taking place online, such as telemedicine.
In addition to reaching areas where fiber networks are not an option, 5G also offers a more cost-effective option. According to a poll from Pew Research, 50 percent of those without broadband cite cost of the service as the main reason as of 2019. 5G meets the need for connectivity with prices that range between $25 and $70, compared to fiber with a price range of $20 to $300.
The FCC could release and auction more mid-band spectrum for mobile carriers to expand their 5G services, but recent legislative back-and-forth is leaving the future of the agency’s authority to do so up in the air. The FCC’s authority is granted through congressional action. Its authority to release and auction spectrum was set to expire at the end of September, but the stopgap funding bill prolonged the authority through December. Congress could reauthorize this authority for the long term, as it did with the previous 10-year authorization, to put 5G allocation in the FCC’s hands. Alternatively, Congress could pass a short-term authorization and then draft legislation that would require band allocation for the purpose of 5G.
The Spectrum Innovation Act of 2022 is an example of short-term authorization. If passed, the bill would prolong FCC authority through March 2024 and require portions of mid-band to be auctioned. While it passed the House in July, it remains to be seen whether the Senate will pass the legislation before the temporary authorization expires.
Consumer access and cost concerns can potentially be met by expanding spectrum allocation. The process for allocation is straightforward, but lawmakers need to act. At minimum, Congress needs to reauthorize the FCC — but if they want to ensure allocation for 5G, they should include requirements for mid-band auctions.