Photo illustration by John Lyman



Securing the Airwaves: America’s Crucial Bet on Spectrum Supremacy

In March, Republican lawmakers introduced legislation aimed at preserving America’s lead in one of the most important technological spaces of the 20th and 21st centuries: radio.

Modern telecommunications depend on radio frequencies to transmit our data across devices. Failure to allow the private sector to innovate with radio waves — particularly towards moving into 5G and beyond — is vital to our economic growth and national security. China and other autocracies are gaining a lead over the U.S. in radio frequency tech. Failure to innovate now will leave us vulnerable to attack in the technological realm.

Throughout history, inventions from the printing press to the locomotive to the telephone have spurred economic innovation and increased the global spread of information. In the 20th century, the discovery and use of radio frequencies took this to greater heights than any previous invention. It sounds old-fashioned, but radio frequencies — often called spectrum — are what power our cell phones and Wi-Fi signals. Spectrum remains a finite resource, and as demand grows our government must have world-class policies that allow the private sector to innovate in telecommunications for both our nation’s security and economic competitiveness abroad.

The U.S. led spectrum innovation throughout the 20th century, but now we are slated to fall behind China and other nations due to poor policy governing our allocation of frequencies for private use. This comes from inaction from both the Biden administration and Congress, which has allowed the FCC to lose its ability to auction new private use of spectrum to private companies. This presents a threat to U.S. national security, as spectrum remains critical to succeeding in modern warfare, cybersecurity, and economic growth.

Spectrum refers to the radio waves on the electromagnetic spectrum that all Wi-Fi, cellular, and other telecommunications use to travel to our devices. The best frequencies for most telecommunications is between 300 megahertz (MHz) and 6 gigahertz (GHz). Iota Communications notes that: “The EM spectrum is a limited resource—there are only so many radio frequencies in existence. But too much activity on particular radio frequency bands would create interference to the point where nothing would be discernible.”

Now here’s where the science meets politics. The U.S. government previously allowed the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to distribute exclusive rights to certain frequencies. Companies offering telecommunication services would bid on these “licensed” frequencies. Some frequencies are “unlicensed” which means they are unregulated, and anyone can use them. However, this is often described as the “Wild West” of frequencies and can lead to poor service.

Lower mid-band spectrum (3 to 8.4 GHz) is an area of growth for our spectrum needs—particularly for 5G, but one that our government is failing to utilize. Other nations, including China, are not making the same mistakes. These countries assign licenses for using frequencies like the U.S. does, and they are doing so more liberally than our government.

A report from Accenture notes that: “The U.S. currently ranks 13th of 15 countries in the amount of spectrum allocated to commercial wireless in the lower mid-band range with 270 MHz*, while leading countries – Japan, France, and China– have 664 MHz available on average. While on par in the upper 3 GHz band, the US lags in its commercial wireless allocation of the lower 3 GHz band and higher 4 GHz bands, with recent allocations of one or both of these bands to commercial wireless in China, the UK, and Japan.”

Currently, there are more than 300% unlicensed mid-band frequencies compared to those currently licensed. No new frequency licenses can be issued. In March 2023, the FCC lost its authority to auction new licenses. Unsurprisingly, this occurred because the Senate failed to vote on legislation extending the FCC’s authority.

In March, Senators Ted Cruz (R-TX) and John Thune (R-SD) introduced the Spectrum Pipeline Act of 2024 aimed at increasing mid-band use for commercial enterprise. The legislation aims to restore the FCC’s right to auction spectrum licenses, “identify at least 2,500 megahertz of mid-band spectrum that can be reallocated from federal use to non-federal or shared use in the next 5 years,” and provisions “further opportunity for technology-neutral innovation in the remaining 1,125 megahertz of remaining spectrum identified by NTIA for commercial services.”

Sen. Cruz accused the Biden administration of dragging its feet on creating a plan to expand spectrum in the U.S. While lawmakers take every chance they can get to criticize a president of the opposing party, in this case, Cruz is correct. The White House has not proposed an actionable plan for increasing spectrum.

In November 2023, the White House released a report saying it would study the use of mid-band frequencies for public use. The report did not indicate any plan of action. FCC commissioner Brendan Carr released a statement accusing the Biden administration of inaction and urging the administration to give the FCC authority to allow new mid-band licenses.

Soon after, the administration released another report. This time, they made no mention of mid-band. They noted their intention to research spectrum access solutions but did not commit to act. Carr again accused Biden of “kicking the can down the road” and noted that the studies outlined won’t be done for another two years.

We can discuss if the exact measures of the Spectrum Pipeline Act are sufficient to meet America’s spectrum needs, but we must have these conversations fast. As noted, it will take multiple years to put this spectrum plan into place. U.S. policy must include both the following: immediate reinstatement of the FCC’s ability to auction licenses to private companies and appropriate a large amount of mid-band frequencies for private use. Doing so will allow Americans to continue spectrum innovation toward keeping our economy competitive and prevent our information systems from being a national security weakness.