Amidst ongoing calls for Congress to restore the Federal Communication Commission’s (FCC) auctioning authority, two new reports shed light on the vital role wireless technology continues to play in the U.S. economy and the lives of millions of Americans. Specifically, they describe how wireless technology, powered by licensed mid-band spectrum, drives American innovation, job creation, productivity gains and countless other consumer benefits. Securing more mid-band spectrum is the only way to ensure that America can meet future demands for network capacity and continue providing these benefits to consumers. The failure to grant reauthorization to the FCC now could have lasting consequences.

Published at the end of April, the reports How Much Licensed Spectrum is Needed to Meet Future Demands for Network Capacity by Brattle Group and Accelerating the 5G Economy by Boston Consulting Group (BCG), document America’s progress toward deploying the initial wave of 5G network infrastructure and laying the foundation for the next generation of infrastructure as well. Specifically, they note how the construction of these networks has played a significant role in the American economy. By 2030, it is estimated that the 5G economy will have created more than 4.6 million jobs and added $1.7 trillion to U.S. GDP.

These findings are consistent with other research which found that the expansion of 5G networks is responsible for driving economic growth and delivering significant benefits to individuals and communities in the form of expanded education and employment opportunities like remote learning and job-seeker services, higher wages and telehealth services. This feat is even more starting given that 5G networks only came onto the scene in 2019.

The 5G economy’s unique consumer benefits depend on the ability of mobile wireless carriers to continue acquiring large amounts of licensed spectrum, particularly licensed mid-band spectrum. Licensed mid-band spectrum is in the middle range of frequencies purchased at auction for exclusive use. Frequently referred to as the “Goldilocks” of spectrum, mid-band spectrum is valuable to mobile carriers because it provides an ideal mix of “the speed of high spectrum bands and the coverage of low bands.” It enables 5G networks to carry large amounts of data over vast distances and provide consumers with a better overall experience than previous generations of wireless networks, often at affordable prices.

Unfortunately, licensed mid-band spectrum is in short supply and demand for mobile data is only growing. According to a recent Ericsson Mobility Report, between 2015 and 2022, mobile data traffic in North America more than quadrupled, with the vast majority of growth occurring in the U.S.. The number of 5G subscriptions has also grown, with 400 million expected in North America by 2027.

Despite the demand, Congress failed to reauthorize the FCC’s auctioning authority, which is needed for mobile carriers to be able to purchase more licensed spectrum. There are also no clear prospects for significant spectrum allocations anytime soon. Delays are due to the U.S.’s lack of a long-term spectrum pipeline or even a national spectrum strategy. Consequently, there’s a high probability that the U.S. will experience significant capacity constraints in the years ahead.

Brattle Group estimates that “absent any new spectrum, by 2027, the U.S. is expected to have a spectrum deficit of nearly 400 megahertz,” representing a significant short fall in national capacity. Worse, this deficit is predicted to triple to 1,400 megahertz by 2032. Failure to address this deficit now could lead to “worse customer experience, network overload” and risk U.S. leadership.

The U.S. is quickly falling behind the rest of the world in the race for 5G and already trails countries like Japan, the U.K., France, China and Saudi Arabia in mid-band availability. The U.S. cannot afford to fall even further behind these countries like China who do not share U.S. national security interests and desire to play a big future role in setting technical standards.

The U.S. must act quickly and decisively to prevent this risk from becoming a reality. As both reports make clear, this will entail U.S. leadership restoring the FCC’s auctioning authority so wireless companies can participate in more auctions and secure greater amounts of full-powered, licensed spectrum. A robust spectrum pipeline should also be developed to prevent future demand from outstripping supply.

While greater spectrum efficiency, additional infrastructure deployment, and new incentives for 5G innovation can also play a role in helping meet consumer demand, only freeing up more licensed spectrum can continue to fuel the type of innovation and consumer benefits that wireless technology provides.