Collaboration the Key to Resolving Spectrum Skirmishes

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Spectrum is limited but it doesn't have to be a zero-sum game.

The first major spectrum skirmish of the 5G era in the U.S. has broken out over a technical and critically important question: Will 5G networks utilizing spectrum in the 24 GHz band cause harmful interference to weather radars? 

On one side of the issue are government users including National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and NASA, and on the other the Federal Communications Commission and by extension, mobile carriers and network operators.

The stakes of this question cannot be understated. 

Weather radar plays a critical role in emergency preparedness. Our ability to provide early, accurate forecasts for hurricanes and other severe weather saves lives and billions of dollars in response and recovery costs. Nobody wants new mobile networks to diminish or degrade this capability.  

Meanwhile, 5G networks are a game-changer. 5G doesn’t just mean faster broadband. It opens the door to new capabilities, including augmented and virtual reality, internet of things devices, smart cities and logistics, connected mobility, machine-to-machine connections, telemedicine, distance learning and so much more.

At a moment when the U.S. is seeking to become a global leader on 5G, it was disheartening to see this important issue play out in a zero-sum fashion. The “all or nothing” approach feels like a throwback to an earlier era where some would jealously guard their spectrum without regard to the innovation and job creation that more efficient spectrum allocation will create.

Fundamentally, there is a lack of trust and transparency that leads to a view that these battles can only be won or lost.  When we’ve been the most successful, it’s because we’ve found the win-win.

For 5G, there is a better way, particularly when the technical questions are hard and the stakes are high.

Government and industry should come together today to identify the challenges, develop technical concepts and iterate the technologies needed to solve the problem.  In essence, prototyping makes better policy. Through rapid R&D, we can incubate new technologies and bring them to the field faster. This creates early looks that enable win-win solutions and helps revolutionize the way in which spectrum is utilized.

This is just as true for weather radars as it is with vehicle-to-vehicle technologies or capabilities that can be used in both the defense space and the commercial sector.

Such a collaboration is not pie in the sky.

It’s is happening today through a close partnership between the Defense Department and the 200+ companies that comprise the National Spectrum Consortium membership. We are working hand in hand to tackle questions related to how spectrum can be shared among existing and new users, how to ensure security, and how to ensure that 5G can be just as available in rural areas as it will be in urban ones. The goal is for these technologies to be dual use and work seamlessly between the commercial and defense sectors.

By working together like this, government and industry can cut through red tape and develop solutions to the most challenging spectrum challenges far faster than through traditional routes. 

The simple truth is that this won’t be the last time we have to deal with tough questions related to spectrum and 5G.

Electromagnetic spectrum is a finite resource. Different bands have different properties. And harmful interference between users can be an issue, especially as mobile network traffic increases.

At the same time, spectrum is the lifeblood of the mobile economy and how it is utilized will have enormous implications for our ability to be globally competitive in the digital era.

So the question becomes how do we resolve these technical challenges?

Do we return to our corners and fight it out through congressional testimony, dueling data, sharply worded op-eds, and winner take all spectrum auctions? Or do we put our differences aside and come together to develop collaborative and innovative solutions?

If these issues can be addressed, U.S. will lead the way on 5G, generating millions of jobs and economic opportunities for Americans. The NSC stands ready to work with the U.S. Government to address these tough challenges and bring together the people from across government and industry who are working to turn the promise of 5G into a reality.

Sal D’Itri is chair of the National Spectrum Consortium and Howard Watson is the vice chair.

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