DOD Releases Prime Airwaves for Commercial 5G Networks

Andrey Suslov/

Amid criticism, officials said 100 megahertz of federal midband spectrum will be transferred to commercial users at an unprecedented pace.

The White House today announced 100 megahertz of ideal midrange spectrum will be made available for commercial entities to deploy fifth-generation networks. Critics say the determination should be double that amount. 

“We have identified 100 megahertz of critically needed midband spectrum that can be made available for commercial 5G purposes,” Chief Technology Officer Michael Kratsios said. “Importantly, this particular part of the band, between 3450 and 3550 megahertz has been identified because it can be made available without sacrificing our nation’s great military and national security capabilities.”

Kratsios and Defense Department Chief Information Officer Dana Deasy briefed reporters on the development Monday, describing an intense work period between the military services, the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy and the National Telecommunications Information Administration. 

“The 100 megahertz we identified we made available for contiguous, coast-to-coast, 5G deployment at full commercial power levels,” Kratsios said. “This process reflects the fastest transfer of federal spectrum to commercial use in history.”

Deasy said the findings leveraged technical work that had been done by the NTIA to show the feasibility of spectrum sharing with military services in the midband range, which is said to have a “goldilocks” quality because it can carry data at optimum range and speed.

But in a July 6 tweet, Republican Federal Communications Commissioner Michael O’Rielly, who has long joined Democrats in pushing for incumbent federal users of spectrum to make more of the finite resource available for commercial use, said the NTIA finding didn’t reflect popular opinion.

“NTIA’s 3.1 to 3.55 GHz report is weak & harms US 5G readiness,” O’Rielly wrote. “Consensus is top 100 should be cleared for commercial licenses, as should second 100, with sharing below. Report extends decades old agency slow-rolling.”

The White House recently withdrew O’Rielly’s nomination to serve another term with the FCC, reportedly over disagreement on the administration’s push to control social media companies. 

Asked about O’Rielly’s criticism, a senior administration official said they would continue to examine whether other spectrum in the band could be freed up but that the conclusion announced Monday is meant to reflect what could immediately be made available without affecting military operations.

“As we go down lower in the spectrum, honestly, the operational needs of the DOD and what has to be done to make that available becomes much more complex,” the official said. “We have and we will continue to look at all spectrum across the entire range. We wanted to determine what spectrum could be made available for immediate use, i.e. auctioned by the summer, that would meet the needs of industry as well as the needs of DOD.” 

While the process can now get underway, Kratsios said the spectrum won’t actually be ready for auction by the FCC until December 2021. A senior administration official said this was due to statutory timelines and requirements laid out in the Commercial Spectrum Enhancement Act.

FCC Chairman Ajit Pai praised the White House and DOD following the announcement.

“I commend the President and Department of Defense for today’s announcement that the 3.45-3.55 GHz band will be made available for commercial 5G deployment,” Pai said. “This is a key milestone in securing United States leadership in 5G. The FCC looks forward to moving quickly to adopt service rules for the 3.45 GHz band and then hold an auction to bring this prime mid-band spectrum to market.”