The hype around 5G is real—it will change how we communicate, travel, fight wars, drive (or not drive) cars, and educate our children. It will also change how doctors operate and treat and heal the sick. It is the most important modernization of our infrastructure that we can do until quantum computing is perfected. It is also the single most important national security imperative for the US for the next ten years.
In the race to 5G, it’s clear that the Chinese have an advantage because their government can tell companies “give back the spectrum we licensed to you”, and then reallocate it to where it can be the most effective in winning the 5G race. Spectrum in the US (think radio waves), has been given away or sold for pennies by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) for decades. President Lyndon Johnson made $20 million getting the FCC to sell him radio and T.V. spectrum for two Texas stations for pennies back in the 1940s. That certainly has ended in recent years—just in the last four years the FCC has auctioned off two spectrum ranges for more than $50 billion.
Over the past forty years, spectrum for mobile phones, satellite communications and T.V., GPS services, and hundreds of other applications has been awarded by the FCC to jump-start the communications revolution we now take for granted. To fully implement 5G across all communities in the U.S., the FCC must now figure out how to allocate spectrum from the very lowest frequency to incredibly high millimeter wave frequency. The backbone will be (for lack of a better way to describe it) in the middle frequency—or the part that was given away for free to government satellite companies back in the 1960s, that then became the struggling satellite companies of today. This is known as “C-band spectrum”, and you will see the numbers 3.7 to 4.2 gigahertz associated with that band. C-band is what enables you to watch the championship basketball game on cable TV as it is the backhaul for ESPN and other networks.
However, C-band is not the only spectrum needed to fully implement 5G. Lower and higher frequencies are also needed. The trouble is, it’s a trade-off. Low frequency is great at going very long distances and can penetrate buildings, forests, even mountains and oceans if ultra-low frequency. That is how our submarines communicate back to the U.S. from deep within the ocean. The trouble is, low frequency also means low bandwidth. High frequency has enormous bandwidth. But it can only go very short distances, and rain, snow, trees, let alone buildings, can disrupt or block it. That is why at that end of the proposed 5G spectrum, you will need an antenna every couple 100 yards or so versus current cell phone towers today, which are miles apart.
What the FCC must now do is figure out how to get back all this spectrum and auction it to those cellular companies building the 5G backbone. Other countries have recently held highly successful auctions for this spectrum range. Some of the mid-band spectrum is also controlled by the U.S. military—and is essential for radar. Unused portions of this will need to be reallocated to the FCC for auctioning to 5G companies.
This piece originally appeared in Forbes on April 12, 2019.