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Communications Infrastructure

Policy and Politics

Spectrum Update: Setting the Stage for the Next WRC

May 23, 2023 | As the stage gets set for the next World Radio Conference, many are focused on the official positions that will be taken by the U.S. government at an upcoming regional spectrum conference (CITEL), which are likely to frame U.S. engagement at the WRC. Last week, the State Department announced that, on behalf of the U.S. Government, it was submitting a proposal to CITEL that calls for the opening of a new band - the 3.3-3.4 GHz band - for 5G mobile services within the Americas Region.

This suggests some progress is being made toward broader use of the lower 3 GHz band for commercial 5G services, a goal that the wireless industry has long been promoting. But by focusing only on 100 MHz at 3.3-3.4 GHz for commercial 5G services (while promoting unlicensed use in 700 MHz of spectrum in the 6.425-7.125 GHz band), the proposal falls short of what the wireless industry was hoping for and what it says is needed to support the growth of 5G services and retain U.S. wireless competitiveness.

Indeed, progress in the 3 GHz band has long been a slow march. Since the Mobile Now Act was enacted, the FCC and the NTIA have been studying the 3.1 to 3.55 GHz band to determine whether commercial users could have access to it, in whole or in part, while protecting federal incumbents. The band and adjacent bands house DoD radar options, which DoD has asserted are critical for national defense.

While in 2019 the FCC supported clearing the full 250 MHz between 3.3-3.55 GHz for commercial use, the White House and the Department of Defense announced plans to allow for commercial 5G systems to operate only in 100 MHz between 3.45-3.55 GHz, which went to auction in 2021. In the wake of that auction, the DoD has vigilantly sought to protect federal operations in the remainder of the band, but has engaged in a number of pilot programs to test various potential sharing arrangements.

Now comes official U.S. support for opening an additional 100 MHz at 3.3 to 3.4 GHz for commercial use. Progress, for sure, but the wireless industry was quick to highlight the position’s shortcomings, with CTIA saying:

“While we are encouraged to see the Administration develop a position supporting the use of 5G in the lower 3 GHz band, the U.S. position falls after the majority of countries in the Region have already developed a proposal supporting this band, is materially different from the growing consensus and adds uncertainty on the potential domestic use of the band as additional studies are proposed to push the topic to WRC-27. We are also concerned that the government is not supporting other mid-band opportunities (e.g. 4.8 and 10 GHz).”

Spectrum tends to be a game of increments. And this increment of 100 MHz is important. But by some accounts, over 70 countries have already re-allocated 3.3 to 3.4 GHz for commercial use, making the U.S. look very late to the game. Also, as CTIA noted, the government’s silence on other potential 5G bands is problematic.

And all of this points back to the importance of the National Spectrum Strategy work currently underway at NTIA. NTIA has committed to creating a government-wide approach to maximize the potential of our nation’s spectrum resources. As spectrum battles continue to play out (see the recent and raucous skirmish in 12 GHz), such an approach is much needed and long overdue.

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