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CHAPTER II - Three Eras of Spectrum Policy

A presentation from Preston Marshall, Engineering Director at Google, regarding the 2012 PCAST report, framed the 2019 Aspen Institute Roundtable on Spectrum Policy dialogue. Marshall described the PCAST report as an important inflection point in spectrum policy, with sharp divisions between policies before the report, revised thinking after the report, and another approach that is currently in place.

Starting in the 1990s, according to Marshall, the U.S. government designed spectrum policy to feed spectrum to operators—primarily mobile providers—as needed, driven by consumer, budget, and operator requirements. The people who focused on spectrum policy were largely budgeteers, spectrum nerds, and the wireless industry. In contrast, Tom Hazlett, Hugh H. Macaulay Endowed Professor of Economics at Clemson University, frames this slightly differently in that the basic thrust of spectrum policy in the 1990s was to apply market forces to spectrum use rights, in order to encourage competition and direct airwave resources to the highest-value uses. In the early 2000s, a rival perspective began to gain hold as popular use of unlicensed bands increased. Marshall described the 2012 PCAST report as a pivot point, setting new goals including 1) spectrum policy should drive innovation in both wireless and non-wireless arenas, and 2) policymakers should consider alternatives to exclusive, perpetual licenses. More recently, 5G (the fifth generation of mobile services) has driven nations to view spectrum policy as important to their national industrial policy, to nurture domestic industries, expand networks, promote innovation, and drive economic activity.

The PCAST study envisioned spectrum as an engine of innovation technology and new business models, with the opportunity for minimal upfront investment, and entry that is scalable. The study also emphasized sharing (non-exclusive access rights) over exclusive licenses and the Federal Communications Commission adopted a sharing approach for the CBRS band. Rikin Thakker, Vice President of the Multicultural Media, Telecom and Internet Council and faculty member in the department of electrical and computer engineering at the University of Maryland, College Park said that particularly in “academia…there had been discussion of dynamic spectrum sharing for many, many years, but PCAST finally brought a mechanism for dynamic spectrum sharing” in the CBRS band. The CBRS Alliance, which facilitates sharing, now has 150 member companies, including verticals and innovators, many of which are small companies.

Michael Calabrese, Director of the Wireless Future Project at the Open Technology Institute, noted that the PCAST approach sought to open spectrum to a wider variety of players and to make access more decentralized and therefore more local, particularly looking ahead to an Internet of Things (IoT) world. CBRS originally aimed specifically at those goals.

How does one evaluate CBRS and determine whether it is successful, and whether that success can be replicated for shared use of other wireless bands? Calabrese suggested the measure from a technical perspective should be whether the rules allow the spectrum to be fully deployed. From a philosophical perspective, the question would be whether whole new ecosystems emerge that would not have under other spectrum management regimes, such as big-bang auctions. Calabrese and Marshall also noted that the PCAST approach focuses on sharing underutilized federal bands. Tom Hazlett added that the evaluation of CBRS should include an assessment of the opportunity costs and that the United States should have used a property rights approach similar to Ireland’s. Marshall responded that the opportunity cost of CBRS was low because of federal government users in the band.

More recently the focus of spectrum policy has turned to 5G, garnering attention at the highest levels of executive branch agencies. This is happening outside the traditional spectrum processes and 5G is not being treated as just “another generation” cell phone but rather as a force multiplier for the economy. In the United States, the desire to go “faster” by both government and the private industry is an impetus to change, often surpassing budget considerations. There is a global competition among countries that is driving the push to repurpose spectrum below 6 GHz. This competition treats 5G as an industrial policy issue more than a spectrum or technology issue.

Marshall summarized three visions of spectrum management drivers and priorities, which correspond to his views of the three eras of spectrum policymaking (see Figure 1).

FIGURE 1: Three Visions of Spectrum Management Drivers and Priorities

Source: Preston Marshall Presentation at the 2019 Aspen Institute Roundtable on Spectrum Policy (AIRS).

Some roundtable participants suggested that the priorities of government decisionmakers have shifted to give more primacy to national security, with the involvement of the Department of Defense (DoD) officials at the highest levels in matters of communications policy. The DoD has sought to revoke and terminate licenses for Chinese telecommunication providers, overruling the FCC’s authority, to ensure national security of American communication and data services. Blair Levin, Non-Resident Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institution pointed out that many stakeholders are using China and 5G to advocate for the same policies for which these stakeholders have been advocating all along. The COVID-19 pandemic highlights the exposure of U.S. vulnerabilities and weaknesses to cyberattacks and emphasizes a sense of urgency to defend against cybercrimes.

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