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Block the Pentagon’s 5G Power Play

Defense leaders’ attempt to become the gatekeeper for prime frequencies is understandable, but it’s the wrong choice for America.

Who should determine who may use the various frequencies needed for 5G wireless communications, whose speed promises to unleash a whole host of benefits for military and commercial users? 

Pentagon leaders say they should. They are proposing to retain control of the 3.1-3.55 MHz band, representing about 40 percent of the mid-band spectrum available for 5G. These frequencies are in a sweet spot, balancing capacity, a trait of higher frequencies; and distance, a trait of lower frequencies. Further, this band of spectrum is already being used for 5G operations in other countries, including China. Defense officials are exploring a model that would share these frequencies with companies, providing wholesale access to a 5G network, while DOD retains ownership. 

They are also looking into operating this portion of the spectrum through “dynamic spectrum sharing,” or DSS — in essence, finding ways to allow portions of the electromagnetic spectrum to be used both by the commercial sector and also existing defense operations. If DSS can be made to work, its proponents say it would allow for more efficient and faster deployment. But some experts dispute this claim. Further, as with the DOD proposal for shared wholesale access, DSS would give so-called “ruthless preemption” to DOD. This uncertainty in reliability would be of concern for commercial operators and users. 

But DSS is as yet unproven and in its infancy. The technology is just beginning to be tested at Hill Air Force Base in coordination with the private sector, and the CBRS band (3.55 to 3.7 Mhz) made available by the FCC this year, is also using limited sharing technology. However, more work is needed and America cannot wait. China is rushing to build its own 5G networks at home and aggressively selling its 5G gear abroad. This represents both a commercial disadvantage and, U.S. officials have repeatedly said, a security risk. Even if DSS ultimately fulfills its promise to efficiently manage shared spectrum between DoD and the commercial sector, we are better off having multiple, competitive 5G networks, deployed with licensed spectrum, earlier than a single DSS-enabled one later.

Moreover, this plan to nationalize part of the mid-band spectrum would hinder commercial innovation, hurting not only the American economy but DOD’s own ability to harness 5G to military advantage.

America cannot afford to let a government agency, even one as important as the Pentagon, to control, operate, and manage access to 5G spectrum. Instead, we should continue to auction off spectrum to the private sector, per the Federal Communications Commission’s 5G FAST Plan. Under this plan, access to 5 Ghz of high-band spectrum, 600 Mhz of mid-band, and unlicensed use in the 6Ghz and 95 Ghz bands will be made available for 5G. Winning bidders for the auctions already completed in the high band average 30 companies per auction, while the recently completed 3,550 to 3,650 MHz mid-band auction for priority licenses resulted in 228 winning companies. These four auctions alone brought in nearly 15 billion dollars. 

This is not to say that the government won’t or shouldn’t have a role. Far from it. By embracing competition in the private sector, setting rules and standards, and clearing bureaucratic obstacles, government can help America win the 5G race. And as it grows more difficult to auction fully cleared spectrum blocksa joint government-industry working group should explore alternative mechanisms such as sharing spectrum with government.

This approach is precisely what allowed the U.S. to deploy its first 5G connections 13 months before China. Our free-market principles are a competitive advantage, and it’s why U.S. companies led on developing previous generations of communications technologies and, despite legitimate concerns about Chinese gains, enjoy an edge on 5G deployment today. We cannot beat China by trying to be more like China. We can do better by acting like ourselves.

Mike Rogers represented the 8th District of Michigan in Congress. He served as chairman of the House Intelligence Committee. He is a Senior Fellow at Harvard University’s Belfer Center, where he is leading a program on 5G, national security, and intelligence policy.

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