Over the last few years, it’s become increasingly obvious that the United States is quickly falling behind the rest of the world in the race for 5G. From reports that international rivals like China have already provided commercial providers more spectrum than the U.S. and constructed more than 10 times as many 5G base stations, to the fact that the U.S. recently allowed the FCC’s auctioning authority to lapse for the first time in its history, it’s clear something needs to change — and fast.
A recent CTIA report underlies the urgency of the situation. Published at the end of September, the report, Comparison of total mobile spectrum in different markets, builds upon a 2020 CTIA report by providing a robust analysis of terrestrial wireless spectrum availability across 14 countries and one city. This analysis includes recent trends on both licensed and unlicensed spectrum. The report also examines where the U.S. stands internationally regarding low-band, mid-band and high-band spectrum and attempts to predict where it’ll be five years from now.
What researchers found is concerning. Not only does the U.S. already trail international competitors in licensed mid-band mobile spectrum, but it’s predicted to fall even further behind in the years ahead. This reality has tremendous implications for America’s future place in the world. The U.S. currently maintains a dominant position over technological innovation, in part due to its wise investment in electromagnetic spectrum. A set of invisible radio frequencies across which wireless signals travel, spectrum allows Americans to do everything from making phone calls, streaming sports games and communicating with friends over social media to hailing an Uber or Lyft for a ride home.
Spectrum is a scarce resource that requires wise use and investment. It’s critical that the U.S. continue to invest in all areas of spectrum used for cellular communication. While the report describes three categories of mobile spectrum — low-band, mid-band and high-band — it’s the category of mid-band spectrum that deserves the most attention.
The report defines mid-band spectrum as between 3GHz and 7GHz. With 270 MHz, the U.S. already lags far behind several leading countries in terms of mid-band availability. Notable countries on that list include Japan, the U.K., France, China and Saudi Arabia, among others. While this position represents an improvement since 2020, the U.S. remains well behind its biggest competitors, like China, which currently assigns 460 MHz for mobile use and is considering making 6GHz available as well. This outcome is unacceptable.
Mid-band spectrum is considered the “goldilocks” of spectrum because it provides an ideal mix of “the speed of high spectrum bands and the coverage of low band.” It enables 5G networks to carry large amounts of data over vast distances and provides consumers with a better overall experience than previous generations of wireless networks, often at affordable prices. It also holds tremendous promise for new and emerging services like online learning, telemedicine, transportation and even smart cities through the remote monitoring of critical infrastructure.
These benefits have led to an explosion in demand for mid-band-supported 5G technology among American consumers. Last year alone, the number of 5G-connected smart phones and other 5G devices grew by 513 percent to 85 million. Over 315 million Americans are now covered by 5G.
This demand requires that commercial providers continue to have the resources they need to expand 5G networks and eventually build 6G networks as well — something the U.S. should prioritize if it seeks to play a role in setting technical standards. Making more licensed spectrum available for mobile carriers is part of meeting that need, but first Congress must reauthorize the FCC’s auctioning authority. Only then can Congress develop a robust spectrum pipeline that includes more mid-band spectrum. Congress must also establish a long-term spectrum game plan for the future and convince the Department of Defense to give up any unused spectrum that could be better used elsewhere.
The U.S. can’t afford to fall further behind the rest of the world in the race to 5G — particularly not behind adversaries like China, which don’t share American interests. The findings of this report should serve as a wake-up call to American lawmakers. American leadership is on the line.