CTIA Presses for more 5G Spectrum

It’s no surprise that the CTIA – the lobbying arm of the cellular carriers is making a big pitch for getting more spectrum for 5G. At a recent hearing of the U.S. Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation, Meredith Attwell Baker, the president and CEO of the CTIA made a pitch to senators to provide significant amounts of new bandwidth for 5G.

Specifically, the CTIA wants access to 400 MHz of mid-band spectrum, which is a giant swath of spectrum. The FCC already plans to auction off 70 MHz of 3.5 GHz spectrum, but it’s going to take a lot more spectrum than that to satisfy the CTIA’s request. The FCC is considering what to do with the 3.7 GHz band which will be the next block being eyed by the wireless carriers.

Atwell Baker supported the need for spectrum by saying that the wireless carriers are poised to invest $275 billion in 5G-related networks which will create 3 million new jobs and add $500 billion to the economy. The CTIA claims that 1.3 million of those jobs and $274 billion of the benefit will come from mid-range spectrum. That overall 5G investment claim sounds crazy to me when put into context. I’ve seen several estimates that the cost to build fiber to everybody in the country ranges between $60 billion to $100 billion. Why would the cellular carriers spend so much for a 5G network if every home and business could have a fiber connection to everybody for a third of the 5G cost? It’s likely that the figures cited by Atwell Baker are overinflated, as seems to be everything claimed for 5G. The jobs number is also overinflated and likely represents labor years, not permanent jobs since most of the jobs benefit from 5G would be temporary while networks and equipment are built. 5G is not going to be adding many jobs to the cellular carriers, and in fact they have all been cutting employees recently. For example, Verizon announced layoffs last year of 44,000 workers – 30% of its workforce. Verizon is not going to be hiring back those 44,000 employees as a result of 5G, let alone hiring ‘millions’ of employees.

Don’t take my skepticism to mean that 5G is not an important innovation, but the 5G hype has been ludicrously extreme starting with Qualcomm’s claim that the implementation of 5G is more important to mankind than the implementation of electricity.

Now that I see the CTIA asking for 400 MHz of spectrum I’m starting to think that the 5G hype has been part of a long-term plan by the cellular carriers to grab more spectrum. The wireless industry’s overhyped claims about 5G make it sound mandatory to repurpose most of our mid-band spectrum for 5G, regardless of other needed uses of the spectrum. Maybe the 5G hype has been nothing more than a coordinated landgrab for spectrum.

Of course, the cellular carriers won’t get the spectrum for free and any new spectrum will be auctioned. But there are only a few serious bidders for the spectrum, and if the FCC really makes big swaths of spectrum available then each of the big carriers should be able to get all the spectrum they want for a reasonable price. There won’t be any need for the wireless carriers to bid up auction prices if the FCC is going to make 400 MHz of spectrum available over time.

My problem with this landgrab for spectrum is that it doesn’t consider the other ways that spectrum could benefit the economy. For example, if we set aside large swaths of spectrum for rural broadband we could have wireless products today that could deliver speeds of hundreds of Mbps.

Wireless ISPs have floated several suggested ways that the FCC can satisfy the cellular carriers while also being able to use the spectrum for rural broadband. One of the best ideas is spectrum sharing where spectrum can be used for 5G in metropolitan areas while being repurposed for wireless broadband in rural areas. Unfortunately, the big carriers don’t want the distraction of spectrum-sharing if it means it will inconvenience them. Alternatively, the FCC could set aside a slice of each mid-range block specifically for rural broadband. That’s is not as good for 5G or rural broadband as sharing spectrum – but it would still improve rural wireless broadband.

It’s a lot easier for the big carriers to invent a 5G spectrum crisis than it is to work out spectrum solutions that help the whole country. Apparently the 5G hype is working because politicians from the White House to state houses seem to have accepted the need to make 5G a priority, making it easier to let the FCC give spectrum to the cellular carriers with no strings and no obligations to share spectrum. The cellular carriers have already won the public relations and political war.

The problem with just handing the spectrum to the cellular carriers is that it will eliminate any meaningful push for sharing spectrum for many decades. That will mean decades where a lot of rural America will not get the speeds they need to be part of the modern economy. Like any new technical idea, we are just at the beginning of developing ways to share spectrum and I have no doubt that over time that we’ll find ways to minimize interference. But we’ll never get a shot to try it if Congress or the FCC buys the cellular carrier’s 5G hype.

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