As the pace of technological innovation accelerates, the economic and geopolitical costs of regulatory dawdling increase. Unfortunately, President Joe Biden seems content to dawdle—at the expense of American technological dominance and national security.
The Biden administration recently released its long-awaited National Spectrum Strategy, a policy document observers anticipated would lay out the federal government’s plans to make new electromagnetic spectrum available for commercial use. Spectrum, the wavelengths over which data travels, is the oxygen in the lungs of digital technologies and the industries they enable particularly 5G. Far from designating new portions of spectrum for commercialization, however, Biden’s strategy merely identifies certain bands for further study.
Without increased spectrum availability, U.S. networks will underperform their potential, and American innovation will consequently lag. This stagnation will reduce America’s global competitiveness in tech sectors, a hazardous possibility given China’s continued technological bellicosity.
The United States currently lags behind other nations—particularly China—in deploying the mid-band spectrum, the optimal type for many commercial, industrial, and infrastructural purposes. Beijing understands spectrum’s usefulness well; it has already allocated 1,160 megahertz (MHz) and intends to increase this total to 1,660 MHz in five years. “Compared to the U.S., with only 450 megahertz of mid-band spectrum available for the foreseeable future, Chinese wireless operators are anticipated to have up to 3.7 times more mid-band spectrum,” trade association CTIA writes.
Domestically speaking, Biden’s inaction, if extended, could mean technological stagnation. Without new allocations, America’s supply of spectrum will soon fall far short of commercial demand. CTIA estimates this capacity shortfall will reach 400 MHz by 2027 and 1,400 MHz in a decade. Nonetheless, the new National Spectrum Strategy addresses these impending crises with lethargy, choosing continued uncertainty over concrete action.
“After nearly three years of study, the Biden Administration does not commit to freeing up even a single MHz of spectrum,” wrote Federal Communications Commission (FCC) Commissioner Brendan Carr in response to the strategy’s publication. “Instead, they are announcing that they will continue studying the issue for years to come.”
The primary obstacles to increased spectrum availability are federal agencies’ current usage rights over vast stretches of spectrum. For instance, Washington has allocated over 60 percent of the lower mid-band to the government but less than 10 percent to licensed commercial users. Many such allocations occurred decades back, and government officials and industry alike now recognize that much of this federal spectrum has better and more efficient uses in the private sector. And despite hyperventilating from certain federal officials, significant spectrum commercialization would not degrade agencies’ functioning.
Decline is, as they say, a choice. Indeed, within the last decade, the federal government took exactly the sort of bold, forward-looking action it now eschews. “From 2017 through 2020, the FCC freed up roughly 6,000 MHz of spectrum for licensed use alone plus thousands of additional MHz of spectrum for unlicensed use,” Commissioner Carr continued in his response. By contrast, “The Biden Administration only plans to study less than 2,800 MHz.” Put simply, Biden is thinking about making available less than half of what the previous Republican-led FCC did make available for licensed use alone. Like Aesop’s hare, Washington intends to snooze on what could otherwise be a sure win.
But one cannot attribute Washington’s decision to take a proverbial nap in the middle of the spectrum race entirely to Biden’s failures. Congress has so far declined to reauthorize the FCC’s authority to auction spectrum licenses, which expired in March. Until then, the auction authority had not lapsed since Congress established it in 1993. Besides their centrality in facilitating American innovation, these auctions have netted the federal government more than $233 billion. Congress’s inexplicable inability to pass a reauthorization—which enjoys broad, bipartisan support—has baffled observers in and out of government.
Oddly, Biden bills himself as the consummate futurist president. He has invested tens of billions each in broadband deployment and advanced semiconductor manufacturing. Notwithstanding the prudence of such prolific federal spending, Biden’s endgame—a technologically dominant and self-sufficient America—certainly cannot manifest absent a healthy pipeline of new spectrum. Keeping the tap firmly shut while bureaucrats engage in studious inaction will do little besides cement the U.S.’s technological status as runner-up.
About the Author
David B. McGarry is a policy analyst at the Taxpayers Protection Alliance and a social mobility fellow at Young Voices. His work has appeared in publications including The Hill, the American Institute for Economic Research, and National Review. Follow him on X @davidbmcgarry.