Column: Wireless spectrum policy is vital to commerce and national security

Few public policy issues will affect our country’s future as much as telecommunications infrastructure will, especially given the current regulatory path for 5G and wireless spectrum.

How US policymakers manage spectrum will affect US national security and international economic competitiveness now and for decades to come. Economic growth, entrepreneurship, upward mobility, innovation, education and healthcare are some of the areas that are and will be affected.

That’s because the radio frequency spectrum that transmits information wirelessly is the foundation needed to ensure that American consumers have access to reliable and affordable high-speed Internet. And in our increasingly connected world, access to spectrum has a direct impact on the economic activity of vital industries.

American security and international standing are at stake because our economic competitors understand the crucial role that spectrum plays and already trust that its use is a key factor in commerce. Political leaders of all persuasions are talking about ensuring that the United States leads the world economy, particularly over China.

There is spectrum to be had, but you have to make it available. Historically, the Federal Communications Commission, which controls access and use of various spectrum bands for non-federal users, had authority to auction the licenses. That authority expired more than a year ago and Congress must continue to reauthorize it.

The good news is that spectrum auctions have been a Nobel-worthy approach that has been beneficial to taxpayers, bringing more than $233 billion to the US Treasury, paid for by wireless companies through the auctions. All companies can participate, including new market entrants. This increased competition between providers means that broadband prices are lower for consumers.

Legislation recently introduced in the Senate, the Spectrum Pipeline Act of 2024, would partially restore the FCC’s auction authority as a necessary first step.

Along with reauthorizing the auction, the bill recognizes the role of midband spectrum, which works well for 5G applications because of its combination of capacity and reach. The National Telecommunications and Information Administration should identify at least 2,500 megahertz of mid-band spectrum that can be reallocated from federal to non-federal use.

Wireless industry association leaders project that within three years, China will have nearly four times as much midband spectrum licensed for commercial purposes as the United States. This analysis also shows that the United States lags behind countries such as France, Japan, the United Kingdom, and South Korea. In fact, the United States currently ranks 13th in the world for licensed midband mobile spectrum according to research by IT and technology consultancy Accenture.

The gap in access to communication technologies harms millions of underserved communities. This is known as the digital divide, and wireless access is an essential component in addressing this disparity. For example, data from the Pew Research Center shows that 20% of the Hispanic population relies solely on smartphones for broadband access to connect to the Internet. Other communities face similar circumstances.

The tangible role of the Internet in education, a cornerstone for individual success, is evident. Improved Internet access allows students to access online educational resources, participate in distance learning, and participate in e-learning platforms. This helps level the playing field and ensures that people from all socio-economic backgrounds have equal access to educational opportunities, enabling them to acquire the skills needed for better career prospects.

The rise of fixed wireless access, which uses wireless broadband for home and business Internet, has been a positive development in this regard. FWA can continue to be a way for more people to enjoy broadband for the first time. But providers can only offer 5G FWA in areas where there is enough spectrum and network capacity.

Policymakers need to understand the magnitude of wireless spectrum policy and its ramifications for Americans, both as individuals seeking social and economic progress and for the nation’s security and national standing. The costs of not doing so would be a significant and lasting setback on all these fronts.

Mario H. Lopez is president of the Hispanic Leadership Fund, a public policy advocacy organization that promotes freedom, opportunity and prosperity for all Americans. He wrote this for The Fulcrum, a non-profit, non-partisan news platform that covers efforts to fix our systems of government.

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