T-Mobile used 300 drones to light up the sky over Lisbon, North Dakota, on Aug. 2, 2020.

T-Mobile used 300 drones to light up the sky over Lisbon, North Dakota, on Aug. 2, 2020. Dan Koeck/AP Images for T-Mobile

America’s 5G Capabilities Are About to Get a Big Boost

The Defense Department is opening large areas of mid-band spectrum to help the United States compete with China in 5G. But is it too little, too late?

The Pentagon will share the use of a big chunk of electromagnetic frequencies in a bid to help U.S. manufacturers bring commercial 5G products to market faster than their Chinese competitors, DoD and White House officials announced Monday.

The military’s release of the frequencies between 3.4 and 3.5 GHz is something like a giveaway of thousands of miles of prime real estate, and follows a similar decision to free up a nearby chunk of frequencies. It is the result of a 15-week effort by 180 experts working at “a record pace to develop a spectrum-sharing plan to support U.S. 5G leadership while protecting critical national security systems,” Defense Department CIO Dana Deasy said in a statement.

The right to share the frequencies with the military will likely be auctioned off, similar to the ongoing auction of Citizens Broadband Radio Service, or CBRS, spectrum auction in the 3.55 to 3.65 Ghz band. That auction could fetch as much as $10 billion. 

The Defense Department controls large portions of the mid-band spectrum in the 3 GHz to 6 GHZ range. It has been working with industry groups like the National Spectrum Consortium to better figure out ways to share that spectrum. And it’s been conducting experiments at Utah’s Hill Air Force Base on dynamic spectrum sharing — essentially, a scheme to allow non-military devices to use certain frequencies when the military isn’t doing so — which may make it possible to free up more spectrum in the future.

Randolph Clark, vice chairman of the National Spectrum Consortium industry group, described Monday’s announcement as important for the future of the U.S. telecom industry. 

“With the merger of T-Mobile and Sprint, they are heavy in mid-band. They have a competitive advantage in mid-band, now with the [CBRS] auction…that gives other carriers an opportunity to get at mid-band dominated by T-Mobile,”he said, adding that his consortium, “applauds the DOD for its innovation in finding additional mid-band spectrum to stay in alignment with the National Broadband” plan.

Opening up more areas in that mid-band range, particularly between 3and 6 GHz,  is key to helping U.S. companies persuade global customers to pick them over Chinese options like Huawei.

Eric Schmidt, former CEO of Google and current head of the Defense Innovation Board, said earlier this year that the U.S. was far behind China in 5G in large part because of the way the United States has managed spectrum. 

“With respect to 5G, it’s clear that we dropped the ball,” Schmidt said at the Defense One Tech Summit in June. 

He said telecommunications companies prize frequencies in the 3-to-6 GHz range because they allow longer ranges and better penetration of signals through walls. While the United States was slow to start figuring out how the Defense Department could share more mid-band spectrum with industry, China essentially gave the equivalent frequencies to major Chinese telecommunications companies without an auction. 

“They have been given a head start, which will give them on the order of 100 million 5G users within the year,” said Schmidt. “The number of 5G users here in America is vanishingly small… So we really did cede leadership to China…At the same time, China funded Huawei to aggressively provide new [multiple in, multiple out] antenna technology to be better than their competitors…So there’s evidence that China was both smarter with the spectrum [and] smarter with respect to funding Huawei. They have a different industrial policy than we do to build these and that’s the conundrum that the U.S. finds itself in.”