In Race to 5G, No Americans Left Behind
Cellphone carriers such as AT&T and Verizon are not the only ones racing to 5G. The United States and China are also jockeying to create the best network the fastest -- and reap the rewards in technological innovation. President Donald Trump hopes to boost U.S. odds with a national strategy to allocate unused wireless spectrum to the private sector. It is a worthy endeavor but one that comes with challenges.
The wireless signals that Americans depend on for everyday life travel over radio frequency, or spectrum. Some of this spectrum belongs to the government, which harnesses it for a range of uses from military targeting radar to walkie-talkie communication between park rangers. Some of it is accessible but unlicensed, allowing the public to connect to Wi-Fi or to listen on a monitor to a baby babbling in a crib. Some the Federal Communications Commission auctions off to telecommunications companies that use their rights, essentially, to wire the country.
Trump aims to restructure the allocation process so that federal agencies assess their spectrum needs, eventually on an annual basis, with what is left being made available for the FCC to sell. Ideally, the process will encourage departments to abandon old technologies in favor of more efficient new ones, leaving formerly occupied airwaves free for commercial use. Legislators are doing their part, too, by considering bills that would create a pipeline for the FCC to unlock even more spectrum.
The biggest debate will be over who gets the spectrum that opens up. Enough must remain unlicensed that the public can still access Wi-Fi and more with minimal congestion. In the past, the FCC has reserved guard bands between licensed blocks of spectrum for that purpose. The FCC should also take care to ensure that smaller carriers have a fair shot at buying bandwidth, possibly by limiting the size of tracts sold. And it is important that coverage also expands to rural areas currently underserved by broadband -- even if it is at lower frequencies than those used for 5G, which are more practical to deploy in low-density areas.
The private and public sectors will also have to work together to install the infrastructure -- called small cells -- necessary for 5G. Twenty states have modernized regulations, but the FCC is fighting with cities in court over how much localities can charge carriers for access to public utility poles. Closer coordination among federal and local actors, along with a law from Congress outlining proper cost assessment, could resolve some of the tension.
5G will make life faster for Americans, and it will unleash innovation in industries from telemedicine to automated transportation. The United States has an interest not only in winning the race but also in making sure none of its citizens get left in the dust.
-- THE WASHINGTON POST