Recent reports indicate that China is growing its 5G wireless capacity faster than the U.S., which makes the reauthorization of the Federal Communications Commission’s (FCC) spectrum auction authority all the more urgent.
China state news agency Xinhua reported in March that China is expected to end 2023 with 2.9 million 5G base stations, according to Minister of Industry and Information Technology Jin Zhaunglong. These base stations are critical because they are “designed to act as a central connecting point for wireless IoT devices to interact.”
Jin also said there is a big push to promote industrial applications of 5G, especially in manufacturing, with plans to build more than 10,000 5G-capable factories between 2021 and 2025, according to RCR Wireless.
Global Times reported that China already had 2.7 million 5G base stations by the end of April, with 5G now covering all prefecture-level cities in the country and county-level urban areas. Experts told Global Times that China leads the world in integrating 5G into the economy.
“So far, 5G applications have been integrated into about 60 of the 97 national economic categories, with more than 50,000 applications launched. China’s telecom industry has invested nearly 600 billion yuan ($84 billion) to construct the 5G network, directly driving total economic output of about 3.8 trillion yuan and indirectly generating output of about 9.4 trillion yuan,” a report from China Central Television noted.
Certainly, given the history of propaganda from state-sponsored media in China, the statistics should be taken with a grain of salt. But, the push for 5G in China comes as the availability of mid-band spectrum sputters in the U.S.
The FCC’s authority to hold spectrum auctions lapsed in March. Those auctions have been a catalyst for 5G expansion in recent years, and industry leaders hope Congress will act soon to grant the commission the authority again. Congress initially gave the FCC the authority to auction off unused spectrum through competitive bidding in 1993. The auctions have raised more than $233 billion for the U.S. Treasury while unlocking thousands of megahertz of spectrum and helping usher in new generations of wireless technology that has helped close the digital divide.
At no cost to taxpayers, wireless carriers have been growing the 5G footprint in the United States. In fact, more than 200 million can receive high-speed 5G internet service in their homes. This is up from an estimated 2 million connections in 2019. Slowing down this deployment by not giving the FCC auction authority will threaten future deployment.
The Consumer Technology Association (CTA) noted in a recent press release that the lapse of the authority is “holding U.S. businesses back and giving global competitors (like China) a competitive advantage at a critical time in the race to 5G and beyond. It’s time for Congress to come together on a bipartisan basis, and put consumers first, by passing a multi-year reauthorization of the FCC’s spectrum auction authority.”
CTA, which represents about 1,500 companies in the wireless ecosystem, notes that the average number of connected devices in American homes has increased from nine to 16 in the past six years. That will help spark an overall doubling of 5G connections in the U.S., from 1 billion in 2022 to 2 billion in 2025.
Fortunately, there has been some movement on Capitol Hill. The House Energy and Commerce Committee unanimously approved House Resolution 3565, Spectrum Auction Reauthorization Act of 2023, in May. That act would extend the FCC’s auction authority for three years.
Energy and Commerce Committee Chair Cathy Morris Rodgers, R-Wash., said during remarks at the June 21 Communications and Technology Subcommittee hearing that the extension has been a priority for her committee.
“In order for the U.S. to lead in next generation technologies, the commercial industry must have access to spectrum,” she said.
Congress should have never let that authority end, given how important unused spectrum is to the growth of wireless technology in this country. Hopefully, Congress can advance this legislation to President Joe Biden’s desk in the coming months.
Johnny Kampis is director of telecom policy for the Taxpayers Protection Alliance.