5G Hampered by Bad Information

The Pentagon is dragging its feet on freeing up lower 3 GHz spectrum for general-purpose networks. The delay is unwarranted.

Disinformation and ineptitude play outsized roles in US technology policy. We see this dynamic play out on several fronts, from public health to military readiness to support for innovation, but perhaps most prominently in spectrum access rights.

The Defense Department has long advocated for a spectrum policy that puts itself in the driver’s seat as the primary holder of spectrum rights, as we discussed in the last post. Some sectors of the US tech economy want to hamstring 5G, as they correctly see its use to supply residential broadband as a threat to their entrenched positions, so the Pentagon has allies.

The latest front on the battle for spectrum rights is in the lower 3GHz band, from 3.3 to 3.45 GHz. The US delegation to the World Radiocommunications Conference (WRC-23) advocates using  3.3-3.4GHz across the Americas Region for 5G, but the Pentagon and commercial allies prefer to dictate its terms of use to something like the dysfunctional CBRS model.

Obsolete equipment

The Pentagon has long argued that its aged wireless systems need protection from modern digital radio systems such as 5G and its successors, and it continues to demand more study time before lower 3 GHz can be released for licensed use. Delay, delay, delay may work well as a legal strategy, but it does nothing good for the US economy.

A new study from CTIA, the wireless industry’s primary trade association, points out that 5G in the lower 3 GHz band successfully coexists with military radar and data systems in more than 50 nations. Given the diversity of military systems, this is unsurprising.

But the CTIA report makes a much more significant finding: many of these nations are US allies and partners using US equipment.

More than 30 of those countries feature 5G deployments that are successfully coexisting with the same U.S. military radar systems that are used domestically, strongly suggesting that 150 megahertz of full power, licensed spectrum can be made available from 3.3-3.45 GHz in the U.S. without risking harmful interference to those military systems.

What do our allies know that we don’t?

There’s no magic afoot among our allies. The coexistence is achieved through perfectly normal means well within the capabilities of persons skilled in the art of spectrum management :

Coordination techniques—such as retuning, compression, and frequency coordination—provide assurance that 5G networks can be deployed in the U.S. at full power in lower 3 GHz spectrum while maintaining the ability to meet critical government missions that depend on radar systems.

In other words, US phased-array military radar and data systems such as AWACS and SKE can happily coexist with full power 5G in other countries because those countries want them to coexist. Modern military wireless systems need to be robust enough to work under battlefield conditions, hence they can operate on a number of frequencies in a variety of modes. The most challenging of the techniques is frequency coordination, ordinarily something operators achieve through conversation and agreement.

Confusing means and ends

The US military, like much of the federal government as a whole, often gets hung up on the means of achieving its goals at the expense of the goals themselves. This has become quite evident in its attitude toward the tactics employed by Ukraine in dealing with the invader.

As reported in the Wall Street Journal by multiple writers skilled in mechanized warfare, the Pentagon doesn’t approve of Ukraine’s counter-offensive tactics. Hence, we hear a lot of chirping about Ukraine’s tactics despite the fact that they have exhausted Russia’s reserves. Ukraine needs more weapons, not more discussion, and it now relies on European neighbors rather than the US for F-16s and long-range missiles.

While the Pentagon strives to present a unified voice to the media, internally it has little agreement on how to specify equipment purchases and how to prioritize technology strategies. Hence, voices such as Maj. Gen. Jeth Rey, the director of the Network Cross-Functional Team at Army Futures Command, don’t carry as much weight as they should.

In both 5G coexistence and support for our allies, the Pentagon should focus more on the immediate goal and less on tactics. Despite its penchant for debate, the Pentagon has little relevant experience in either field.

The wireless industry has made enough concessions

The US lags far behind China in allocating mid-band spectrum to licensed, full-power, 5G and 6G networks. China has correctly identified the mid-band as the 5G sweet spot, backing up the insight with 1160 MHz of mid-band, 4.3 times the 270 MHz currently allocated in the US.

US regulators have shown favoritism to unlicensed and low power systems such as Wi-Fi and CBRS. Nobody likes Wi-Fi more than I do, as I’ve been designing and improving it since 1990. But Wi-Fi is a system suitable for use in homes, offices, and (with great effort) campuses and factories.

CBRS is similar, offering an option for rural wireless while falling short of supporting general-purpose networks for both indoor and outdoor use. Consumers are making it clear that we’re a wireless-first nation where wire is best reserved for backhaul and unlicensed is for short distances.