The Great Race for 5G

June 24, 2020  • J. Stephanie Rose

Recent rulings around the deployment of 5G infrastructure, amidst the COVID-19 pandemic, have highlighted the necessity and urgency of fifth generation networks.  During the 2019 Aspen Institute Roundtable on Spectrum Policy (AIRS), I had the pleasure of convening with scholars, experts and pivotal change makers within the telecommunications field to talk about 5G and spectrum policy. Over the course of our time together on the eastern shore of Maryland, we posited about the United States’ 5G challenges and subsequently discussed policy recommendations on how to overcome pervasive issues in the field of spectrum. Using the 2012 President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST) policy recommendations as a framework for our discussions, we evaluated the relevance of the proposed policies based on today’s standards and telecommunications needs. A major task for roundtable participants was to confer within designated working groups and grapple with industry challenges as they pertain to federal policies for spectrum, global harmonization and the digital divide.

The following is a synopsis of my experiences and insights based on the 2019 AIRS conference, including key looming challenges and interesting solutions and insights that require further discussion and action within the field.

Policy Levers: Recasting PCAST after the WRC-19

The 2012 President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST) report to the Obama Administration concluded that “clearing government held spectrum of federal users and auctioning it for commercial use is not sustainable”. [1] PCAST’s recommendations highlight the need to repurpose spectrum for U.S. economic and technological leadership, however we are eight years late on fulfilling those recommendations. Innovative technologies and shared spectrum may have the potential to connect more urban and rural communities to wireless broadband services – but it will require intent and follow through. Access is only one of the challenges concerning the digital divide. Affordability and digital literacy are additional barriers that need to be resolved as well. Can 5G provide us with the mechanisms to increase affordability? If so, how do we build increased digital literacy as the country continues to rely on more online services and systems?

The PCAST report also centered on spectrum efficiency. The report discusses possible incentives for federal users to make spectrum efficiency a priority. These resolutions pose other challenges when we think about spectrum use across the globe, thus the need for international policy.

The 2019 World Radiocommunication Conference (WRC-19) addressed questions regarding radio-frequency spectrum, the geostationary satellite (GSO), and non-geostationary satellite orbits (NGSOs). One key challenge discussed at AIRS was the value of the International Telecommunications Union (ITU) globally harmonizing spectrum bands (see the Aspen Institute Roundtable report for full discussion).

Our challenge during the three-day roundtable was to utilize the information from the 2012 PCAST report and the considerations that arose during WRC-19 to guide our recommendations with the backdrop of 5G. We addressed the complexity of the topic through tough questions: How can we make more federal spectrum available in a sustainable way for both federal and commercial users? What role does the digital divide play in resolving issues with the advent of 5G? How does global harmonization fit into an already developed telecommunications landscape? Will China’s development/deployment of 5G be setting a de facto standard?

The spectrum landscape is evolving yet again. With the promises of 5G emerging within the market in the near future, how can we better utilize our existing spectrum to make way for these emerging innovative technologies, grow the economy and benefit all Americans?

The Digital Divide as an Opportunity to Spur Innovation and Reach 5G Goals

The digital divide is a persistent and pervasive problem within the United States, and so far, no solutions have closed the gap sufficiently. Low-income, rural areas and urban communities do not receive the same level of speed, availability and affordability of online services. The standout question from the roundtable concerning this topic was whether or not 5G would exacerbate this divide further. The answer is yes. But 5G also has the potential to bridge many communities. As one roundtable participant suggested, we can leverage coveted telecommunications resources, such as bands identified or allocated for 5G and require providers who “win” this allocation of spectrum to serve areas and communities that have been continuously discounted by competitors. When we think of some of the challenges we are experiencing globally, the digital divide is a pervasive issue, and 5G may be a way to solve some of those problems.

Final Thoughts

A true 5G win means we are able to resolve and/or find a tangible way forward on some of the challenges that have emerged during the 2G, 3G and 4G phases and as the communications industry further matured.  The Aspen Institute has long seen technology and the Internet as a source for good. Good policy and practice will encompass resolutions that benefit all current and future users.  It includes the understanding that the entire landscape may not be profitable yet at the same time can create immeasurable opportunity  – surely a win.

J. Stephanie Rose is a 2019 Aspen Institute Guest Scholar. The Guest Scholar program, now the Firestone Fellowship, is an initiative meant to give students of color the opportunity to foster their professional and academic career in the field of media, innovation and technology policy. Each year doctoral (or other advanced graduate program) students of color are invited to apply for a Fellowship to attend an Aspen Digital roundtable or event.  The program first began in 2001.

Rose is a Ph.D. Candidate in the Department of Informatics and Network in the School of Computing & Information at the University of Pittsburgh.

The opinions expressed in this piece are those of the author and may not necessarily represent the view of the Aspen Institute.

[1] President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology, “Report to The President Realizing the Full Potential of Government-Held Spectrum to Spur Economic Growth,” July 2012, available at: inal_july_20_2012.pdf