In the modern and globalized world, economics and international conflict have increasingly become intertwined. Given America’s accelerating competition with China, removing unnecessary constraints on domestic industry constitutes both an economic and a national-security imperative, particularly in sectors that produce cutting-edge technologies. America is lagging China as well as many friendly nations on the crucial policy issue of providing much-need spectrum (the frequencies over which devices communicate and exchange data) for commercial use. Spectrum is a sine qua none of American technological dominance.
The prolific technological innovation that American economic success and national security demand will depend largely on the availability of mid-band spectrum, a type with particular usefulness for commercial, industrial, and infrastructural purposes.
“Most of the crucial emerging technologies necessary for sustained U.S. leadership are being developed by the private sector,” writes Clete Johnson, a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic & International Studies (CSIS).
Without additional spectrum, U.S. network performance will flag, and subpar networks in turn will dampen innovation across the economy.
In a bygone era in which public and private sectors used far less spectrum, such agencies as the Defense Department received exclusive rights to an outsized share of it. Of the lower mid-band spectrum (a crucial section of spectrum), Johnson notes that “government users have been allocated 61% … (compared to less than 10% for licensed commercial users).”
Loath to relinquish these privileges, federal agencies too often have obstructed efforts to make available publicly controlled spectrum to more productive and efficient private use. A lack of centralized spectrum management among agencies (which have diverse interests and biases) has further delayed spectrum allocation. Besides bureaucratic intransigence, Congress has declined to renew the Federal Communications Commission’s authority to auction spectrum, which expired in March. Its failure to do so in the face of broad, bipartisan support is inexplicable.
Some have suggested that releasing spectrum to private industry could interfere with military radar systems. According to a recent analysis from CTIA, this has little merit. The trade group reports that more than 30 countries operate full-power 5G networks in the critical lower three gigahertz (GHz) band that coexist successfully alongside these U.S. radar systems. These foreign networks have not interrupted American military operations in Japan, South Korea, El Paso (which abuts a Mexican network), and elsewhere. Physics’ laws apply universally, and certainly internationally, suggesting that American policymakers may proceed safely.
In another episode, the Federal Aviation Administration predicated attempts to delay the launch of newly privatized C-band spectrum on bogus claims that it could interfere with airplane altimeters. The agency’s stance contravened the FCC assessment as well as the international community’s experience. The FAA even admitted there had not “been proven reports of harmful interference due to wireless broadband operations internationally.”
When deployed more widely, spectrum will facilitate ultra-fast and omnipresent internet access. Consequently, the technology it will enable promises to revolutionize myriad sectors of the economy. These new technologies include advanced sensors for industries such as energy and agriculture, autonomous vehicles, intelligent city infrastructure, increased drone usage, and much more.
“This connectivity will capture exponentially more digital data than has ever existed in history, expanding the capabilities of artificial intelligence (AI), advanced analytics, and cyber capabilities beyond anything imaginable today,” CSIS’s Johnson predicts.
Washington has only a mixed record on spectrum issues, but recent missteps could herald disaster to come. CTIA estimates that, without new initiatives, America will face a spectrum-capacity shortages of 400 megahertz (MHz) by 2027 and of 1,400 MHz in a decade. Washington’s policy failures inject uncertainty into tech markets, discouraging private investment.
Meanwhile, the Chinese Communist Party well understands spectrum’s technological potential and geopolitical import. Estimates suggest that the Chinese have exceeded America’s commercial availability for mid-band spectrum by as much as threefold.
“In five years, China is expected to lead the world,” Johnson writes. In that time, CTIA projects that the Chinese will increase commercially allocated mid-band spectrum from 1160 to 1660 MHz.
Observers often depict Sino-American competition as a clash of distinct ideologies — and it is. But further, given economic power’s outsized importance to its resolution, the conflict is an experiment in whether liberal and democratic capitalism can produce more economic dynamism and technological innovation than a centrally planned economy. It often opposes (directly or otherwise) private American industry against state-controlled Chinese actors. Thus, Washington must take special care to avoid hamstringing the productive capacity of private businesses and innovators on which American national security depends.
The U.S. has wagered that free markets can outcompete socialized ones. Despite capitalism’s quirks, contradictions, unpredictability, and scattershot nature, voluntary association and free exchange historically have generated far more wealth than the best-laid plans of knowledge-poor technocrats. It is time to embrace capitalism and reject fearmongering to open more spectrum and to continue to close the digital divide.
David B. McGarry is a policy analyst at the Taxpayers Protection Alliance.