Under the leadership of Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) with 2 Democrats and 2 Republicans has accomplished consequential policy for security and telecommunications. In a recent speech at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), Rosenworcel highlighted these accomplishments. In concert with the event, CSIS released a new report from Senior Fellow Clete Johnson, “The Strategic Imperative of U.S. 5G Leadership.” Here’s a review of the key points.

Telecommunications regulatory governance is a powerful strategic security lever that the United States and its allies should wield with a clear vision for the future of free-market democracy. At the end of World War II, the U.S. and its allies formed NATO to protect market democracies. As we now confront the aggression of authoritarian regimes in China and Russia, the US must apply the same commitment to principles of free-market dynamism, innovation, and fair competition. In today’s technological environment, in which 5G’s capabilities can profoundly shape societal and government structures, properly engineering regulatory levers will guard against the aggression of authoritarian regimes and protect human rights. To maintain 5G leadership, Johnson – a veteran of both the Department of Commerce and FCC – urges the US to deploy the following strategy to win the 5G future: free market-based innovation, a nationwide regulatory framework, and pro-investment policies.

Johnson’s paper makes three key points on how regulators can seize the moment to create a digital future of innovation and freedom:

First, the United States should foster rapid 5G deployment by:

· Continuing to make low-, mid-, and high-band, spectrum, particularly licensed spectrum, available to the commercial wireless market;

· Reducing barriers to deployment nationwide such as European style patchwork siting and licensing regulations; and

· Maximizing the impact of broadband funding in the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA) by funding fixed wireless service where fiber-to-the-premise is not the best solution.

Second, the United States should pave the way for future innovation by:

· Clarifying and re-establishing the FCC’s authority as the federal government’s primary spectrum authority for commercial spectrum allocation so the US can solve intra-federal government spectrum disputes early and thoughtfully;

· Advancing efficient use of spectrum through exclusive use licenses, flexible use rights, reliance on market forces to ensure spectrum is put to its highest and best use, globally harmonized spectrum, auctioning spectrum in the pipeline, and investment-friendly technical rules;

· Harmonizing best practices for cross-border data transfer to promote security, privacy, and optimal use of next generation network-generated data;

· Supporting the transition to next-generation network architectures and technologies through demonstration projects, R&D, testbeds, and pilots that support market diversity and innovation,

· Continuing federal spending in support of 5G deployment, including in the IIJA BEAD program and other broadband access programs such as RDOF.

Third, the United States should work with our allies to prove that competitive free-market democracies best foster trusted, innovative communications technologies by:

· Promoting trust in communications networks and supply chains, including by implementing trust principles through global 5G networks;

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· Leveraging partnerships with like-minded nations to counter predatory practices and promote global economies of scale for network operators and vendors serving these markets; and

· Safeguarding international standards processes for private sector technical innovation and protecting intellectual property rights.

Winning is a not a given.

Johnson recalls how European actors expected to lead the world in tech and telecommunications in the year 2000. Showing how leadership can shift, he details that “Europe ‘won’ 2G but ‘lost’ 3G and 4G (and is losing 5G)” and that “the United States won 4G and secured the benefits of first-mover status” on 5G. Europe struggles with 5G today, lagging behind on investment and deployment. He notes that Europe’s average telecommunications spending per capita has actually decreased by over 15 percent, while that of the United States has increased by 24 percent.

A key difference in the two regions is that Europe persists in top-down internet regulation with price and traffic controls which destroy incentives for investment. The FCC tried this approach in 2015-2016 with the imposition of Title II. The FCC observed that investment fell by more than 5 percent during the period; so it wisely restored the light touch approach. US network investment has improved in every year since, with 2021 being a 20 year high in addition to more broadband competition, faster broadband speeds, and more value for consumers. Indeed the United Kingdom telecom regulator Ofcom has taken note of the failed internet regulation to consumers, innovators, and investors and aims to reduce these harmful policies, now that it is no longer tethered to the European Union.

The US has wireless leadership today, but it is not assured. Tech and telecom competition is now between the US and China. Five countries – including China – are expected to overtake the US in mid-band spectrum allocation in the next five years. Meanwhile, the federal government holds 61 percent of lower-mid band spectrum, while the wireless industry has access to just 5 percent. Reauthorization of the FCC’s ability to conduct spectrum auctions with a clear pipeline of licensed spectrum is critical.

We need to enact the correct regulatory framework to leverage the promise of 5G’s innovative technologies and create a future that is powered by freedom and free from the aggression of authoritarian regimes.

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