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Op-Ed: Spectrum Pipeline Act a promising start that needs balance

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Given how important digital connections are to Americans’ daily lives, it’s urgent that Congress move to renew the Federal Communications Commission’s authority to auction parts of the public airwaves.

That authority lapsed a little over a year ago and efforts to reinstate it have been repeatedly stuck in partisan gridlock.

Toward that end, new legislation from Sens. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, John Thune, R-S.D., and Marsha Blackburn, R-Tenn., seeks to resolve the impasse, as it would not only renew the FCC’s auction authority but also set a clear timeline for identifying and reallocating spectrum. This long-overdue bill also marks a welcome contrast to the Biden administration’s National Spectrum Strategy, which favors more studies over action. As FCC Commissioner Brendan Carr noted recently, “We need bold action – not more plans to plan.”

But there remain lingering questions about whether the bill, in its current form, accurately reflects how Americans use spectrum today or the spectrum needs the public will face in the future.

The Spectrum Pipeline Act would call on the National Telecommunications and Information Administration to identify at least 2,500 megahertz of spectrum for reallocation. The bill recognizes the critical role of commercial wireless service, ensuring that this core part of our digital economy’s backbone remains robust and capable of meeting growing demands for many years to come.

But while the bill is an important step toward modernizing spectrum policy and recognizing the centrality of commercial wireless services, it takes a perplexing approach to unlicensed and shared-licensed spectrum. It would reserve half of the allocated spectrum for high-power exclusively licensed spectrum, but nothing would be reserved for low or mid-power shared-licensed spectrum and only 5% for unlicensed spectrum.

With the promising early success of the Citizens Broadband Radio Service, shared-licensed spectrum has shown that it can work, while also satisfying commercial needs and allowing important national-security functions to continue unimpeded. It’s increasingly vital to provide incentives for shared-license frameworks, both as less and less greenfield spectrum is available and commercial users often have to find ways to coexist with federal users like the Pentagon and the Department of Energy.

The old days of clearing and relocating government users needs to give way to innovation and coexistence wherever possible. Technology not only makes this possible, but the high cost of relocating critical national-security functions makes it a virtual necessity. The lack of any meaningful recognition in the bill for shared-license spectrum represents a missed opportunity for innovation and forward thinking.

Similarly, the small nod the bill gives to unlicensed spectrum is out of line with how the average consumer uses it. A huge share of daily internet traffic – if not the majority – originates over WiFi connections. With WiFi devices multiplying, this user trend is not likely to abate any time soon. If a sufficient pipeline of unlicensed spectrum is not established to meet this demand for years to come, our WiFi networks won’t be able to keep up with the high-capacity, high-speed fixed connections that we are spending so much public and private money to bring to our homes and businesses.

To be sure, the Spectrum Pipeline Act is an important step forward in laying out a proactive approach for keeping pace with rapid advancements in technology and the ever-increasing demand for wireless services. But by not guaranteeing a meaningful portion of spectrum to unlicensed and shared-licensed use, it may inadvertently stifle innovation and fail to alleviate the very scarcity problems it seeks to solve.

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