Clearing the Air on 5G

March 13, 2020

While much of the focus on 5G in the Western press has concerned Huawei, the Chinese telecom behemoth, there is another 5G storm brewing within the United States that involves America’s largest telecom companies. Consumers might assume that this storm includes the standard competition between companies for better handsets or faster download speeds. But the fiercest battles are being fought between U.S. companies and the U.S. government over what parts of the electromagnetic spectrum to use for 5G development, and how to use them.

Unfortunately, several questionable proposals have recently bubbled to the surface that threaten U.S. national security and fail to provide an actionable strategy for U.S. 5G development. If enacted, these proposals will set the United States back in the race to 5G and further diminish America’s competitive edge against China. Many of these proposals cite the Defense Innovation Board’s 5G report published last April, which we co-authored. Unfortunately, many cite it incorrectly. It’s time to set the record straight and clear the air on America’s 5G development.



The U.S. telecommunications industry is pressing the U.S. government — and the Department of Defense specifically — to give up its critical positions on the spectrum access rights it now has and hand those positions to industry. Such an eviction would cause irreparable harm to U.S. national security and fail to create a viable U.S. 5G solution in time to compete with China. This proposal chooses to ignore a clear and viable alternative that would better support both the Defense Department and industry objectives: sharing spectrum with government instead of kicking government out.

The fight for spectrum began as a debate over spectrum location and has evolved into a debate over spectrum ownership.

The “location” debate revolves around which bands of spectrum businesses should use for building a 5G network. There are two main options: “sub-6” (1–6 Gigahertz, also known as “mid-band”) or “mmWave” (24–300 Gigahertz, also known as “high-band”) spectrum. Our report argued that, while mmWave can provide exquisite capability in targeted applications — particularly for the military — the telecommunications industry would need to focus on sub-6 to provide nationwide coverage.  The mmWave vs sub-6 argument was initially heated as companies tried to justify their mmWave investments, but these claims soon lost traction as early deployments rapidly showed the impracticality of mmWave 5G for broad area  area coverage. Industry only began demanding access to sub-6 spectrum within the last year after these problems came to light.

Since then, the debate has moved to spectrum “ownership.” This debate addresses the precious bands of sub-6 that will enable nationwide 5G coverage and how to allocate those bands between government and commercial stakeholders. In the United States, government organizations like the Defense Department have traditionally been assigned exclusive access to large portions of the sub-6 spectrum to make use of its broad utility (while mmWave has potential in targeted applications, the majority of Department operations rely on sub-6). There is, indeed, significant room to put Defense Department spectrum to productive commercial use. However, industry now demands that the Defense Department vacate its spectrum positions entirely so that the government can license sub-6 spectrum exclusively to telecom providers. In theory, this would allow telecom would to operate in sub-6 without having to deconflict their operations with government. But in reality, it would both jeopardize U.S. national security and be highly impractical to implement. Most importantly, it would not create a viable 5G ecosystem in time for the United States to compete with China.

The fact is that forcing the Defense Department out of its bands of spectrum would take years to implement, require billions of taxpayer dollars, and ultimately cause critical damage to the Pentagon’s global operations. Vacating spectrum is only half the battle; in order to free the desired spectrum for commercial use, the Defense Department would then have to identify new viable bands of spectrum, test systems on those bands, and then replace all relevant systems with new ones that can operate in that new location. Moreover, there is not an abundance of viable spectrum, making relocation even more challenging. Sub-6 is sometimes called the “goldilocks” of spectrum: not too high or too low but able to find a balance between the longer range achievable in lower bands of spectrum while maintaining the discrimination and capacity of higher bands of spectrum. For this reason, much of sub-6 is already crowded with a variety of radars and other systems, and would lack many viable options for relocation if defense systems had to vacate their current positions.

Moreover, evicting defense systems would not create a viable and secure 5G alternative in time to compete with Chinese offerings. Time is of the essence — China has a viable sub-6 5G solution now and is deploying quickly at home and abroad.

China has directly assigned 600 Megahertz of sub-6 spectrum to its three national carriers and is already rapidly building out networks. Since the first mover in 5G stands to gain billions of dollars in revenue and massive job creation, the United States should move quickly to reap any such benefits. The United States simply does not have the five to 10 years it would take to move defense systems out of their current positions and hand exclusive spectrum rights to commercial users.

There is a better way for the Defense Department to promote commercial wireless. Instead of impracticable option of vacating its positions, the Pentagon should share parts of its sub-6 spectrum bands with the commercial sector. Sharing spectrum could take just two to three years instead of the 5 to 10 years that vacating requires, would cost millions of dollars instead of billions, and would not put national security operations at risk. Sharing spectrum provides the strongest path forward for the United States in the race to 5G, both to gain first mover economic advantage awarded to the first mover and to provide a trusted, secure, and reliable 5G alternative to the Chinese 5G model for the global community to use overseas. Building on lessons learned with Citizens Broadband Radio Service shared spectrum, which now provides 150 MegahertzHz of mid-band shared military radar spectrum to commercial users, the Defense Department can be even more effective in sharing additional mid-band spectrum blocks.

Since the Pentagon already shares spectrum abroad, it has many incentives to pursue spectrum sharing within the United States. The Defense Department operates globally, working with allies and fighting against adversaries that are not bound by U.S. rules regarding spectrum use. The United States is only able to ensure exclusive spectrum access inside its own territory; outside the United States, sharing spectrum is the norm. For this reason, the Defense Department should embrace the prospect of sharing domestically as it already shares spectrum overseas. The good news is that the Pentagon is taking proactive steps in the right direction. For example, in the fall of 2019, it named four military bases that would host 5G testing and then assigned Hill Air Force Base as the focal point for spectrum sharing experimentation. Additionally, not only is the Defense Department participating in ongoing discussions with the National Telecommunications Information Association and Congress to share hundreds of Megahertz of its spectrum, it has subsequently taken steps to work with industry in that regard.

For all this progress, it is important to bear in mind that the Defense Department is not the arbiter of spectrum allocation. That role belongs to the National Telecommunications and Information Association and the Federal Communications Commission, which control government and commercial spectrum, respectively. The success or failure of U.S. 5G development depends on these organizations taking rapid, aggressive action in the coming months to support spectrum sharing.

The Pentagon can further support spectrum-sharing efforts by dynamically balancing the needs of different users. Rather than wait for the development of new technologies and algorithms, or implement overly prescriptive sharing rules for each defense system, the Pentagon can — in the near term — take advantage of statistical patterns of spectrum use, and coordinate prioritized operation in those bands.  This dynamic allocation would reflect demands on the network over the long term and would likely be possible using modern base station equipment. By coordinating use instead of setting static rules for sharing on each discrete system, it may be possible to protect Defense Department operations while guaranteeing telecommunications vendors a baseline of connectivity and optimizing network use for both groups. The Defense Department should consider new and innovative methods of sharing spectrum now, and engage the U.S. industrial base to ensure its access to available, reliable, secure, and trusted 5G networks both at home and abroad.

Industry efforts to completely remove military access to it’s  current spectrum positions are damaging to national security and will not create a viable U.S. 5G option in time to compete with China. Global telecom operators are making choices about how to deploy 5G now. U.S. 5G spectrum policy should make useful spectrum for 5G deployment available quickly and create incentives for network infrastructure to be deployed rapidly. Spectrum is only useful if services are deployed within it.

In the race to 5G, time matters — not just for making spectrum available but for the broad deployment of network infrastructure across all of the United States. A solution that takes the better part of a decade to deploy will not make the United States a leader but a slow follower. As China races ahead to to deploy their 5G technology and infrastructure across the globe, the US cannot afford to sit on the sidelines.  This debate should not be about a false choice — National Security vs commercial 5G deployment. Spectrum sharing technology enables both objectives to be fulfilled within timeframe that is relevant. Choosing otherwise when better options are available would be a bad deal.



Milo Medin is the vice president of wireless services at Google and a member of the Defense Innovation Board. Gilman Louie is the founder of Alsop Louie, the founder and former CEO of In-Q-Tel, and an advisor to the Defense Innovation Board. They are co-authors of the Defense Innovation Board’s report on 5G. The authors do not represent the Department of Defense or the Defense Innovation Board; their views are theirs alone.

Image: U.S. Air Force (Graphic by David Perry)