The power struggle between the United States and China is multifaceted and centers on the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) laser-focused quest for global supremacy. The CCP is using all elements of its national power to undermine U.S. security, prosperity, and freedom. Case in point: News recently broke that China’s military is targeting U.S. troops and veterans as part of an exploitation campaign to “fill gaps” in its own military capabilities. Just before that, Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo traveled to China in an effort to improve U.S.-China business relations. The maxim coming out of her trip: “Actions speak louder than words.” While she’s talking about the need for China to treat U.S. businesses fairly, her words could easily be turned around and applied to other U.S.-China challenges under her purview, including technology policy.
Spectrum, the invisible radio frequencies that carry wireless signals, is a core driver of U.S. technology leadership and the digital age. But because spectrum is a finite resource, we as a county must have a reliable pipeline so we can continue to build the most advanced, reliable, and secure wireless networks in the world. The technologies of the future—artificial intelligence, robotics, cloud computing, quantum—all depend on digitalization and network capacity. The United States is the global leader in wireless innovation, but to maintain this position and stay ahead of China, we must maintain a robust focus on spectrum policies that enable U.S.-led innovation to continue to be the world’s leader. Our national and economic security depend on it.
Each generation of wireless technology has unlocked new capabilities. Fifth-generation, or 5G, networks today are supporting game-changing applications, and developers are planning for 6G networks in the future. This type of progress is important, but a serious hurdle facing wireless technology is the lack of a pipeline of available licensed spectrum.
The United States currently trails leading countries in licensed spectrum availability, and China and others are quickly identifying additional bands for 5G and defining the international conversation on spectrum for the future. The costs of falling behind are real and will be felt throughout the tech world.
Should the United States fail to act in making more licensed spectrum available, we run the risk of becoming a spectrum island, losing out on the innovation driven by having the world’s most advanced networks and ceding our ability to lead standards-setting efforts. The consequences are real: from missing out on the development of the next big thing—innovators will go where the environment to innovate is best—to consumers not having the reliable, high-performance service they expect to meet skyrocketing demand needs.
The time for action is now. Every few years, the World Radiocommunications Conference (WRC) gathers to set international spectrum standards. The United States has long been a leader in setting the agenda for spectrum policy. Yet, the WRC taking place in November will be a significant deviation from this legacy of leadership. China is supporting six separate international efforts to identify the dedicated mobile spectrum for 5G maturation and early 6G development.
The Commerce Department’s National Telecommunications and Information Administration is developing a National Spectrum Strategy for the United States. It’s critical that this strategy sets ambitious targets for licensed spectrum and clears the path for the difficult interagency work it will take to identify, clear, and repurpose large swaths of spectrum for commercial use. The world is watching this important national imperative as we head into the WRC.
The Department of Defense holds significant spectrum resources and is often very hesitant to play ball with other agencies when it comes to spectrum allocation for commercial use, but spectrum allocation does not have to be a zero-sum game. We can provide for our military and ensure that we lead the world in wireless innovation. I urge leaders inside the Pentagon to work productively with Congress and the private sector to achieve this balance as no one wants to jeopardize the operational security of our nation’s critical military equipment. Spectrum is a strategic and limited resource that must be put to its highest and best use.
Identifying new bands of spectrum for auction is a long and difficult process that will require high-level cooperation and compromise. Major General Jeth Rey, director of the Network Cross-Functional Team at Army Futures Command, recently wrote that “it is imperative that the [Department of Defense] intensify its efforts to reduce electromagnetic signature.” In other words, the department should be using less, not more, spectrum.
At a time when tensions with China could escalate, the United States cannot afford to waver on spectrum policy. Our national security depends on it.
James “Spider” Marks is a retired U.S. Army Major General.