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Remarks of Assistant Secretary Strickling on the 5G Wireless Future and the Role of the Federal Government

December 16, 2016

Remarks of Lawrence E. Strickling
Assistant Secretary of Commerce for Communications and Information
The 5G Wireless Future and the Role of the Federal Government
Hudson Institute

Washington, D.C.
December 16, 2016
--As Prepared for Delivery--

I want to thank Harold Furchtgott-Roth and the Hudson Institute for having me here today and hosting this event and to all of you in the room and to those of you who are watching us remotely on the webcast. I want to especially thank Harold for his work on the Commerce Spectrum Management Advisory Committee (CSMAC) and for his contributions on spectrum policy over the years.

Our focus today is on spectrum policy, but we should explore it in the larger context of technology policy. I think it is fair to say that the Obama Administration has been as engaged or more engaged on technology policy than any of its predecessors. This is not just because President Obama has a personal interest in technology, but rather it reflects his recognition that the competitiveness of our country depends on having a sound technology policy that supports investment and innovation.

When President Obama was first elected in 2008, e-commerce made up nearly 4 percent of U.S. retail sales. Today, that number has increased to 6 percent. In 2014, the United States exported roughly $400 billion in information and communications technology-enabled services. This accounted for more than half of U.S. services exports. Virtually all industry sectors, from manufacturing to agriculture to financial services have benefited from the adoption of digital technologies, applications and services.  In short, tech policy is now intrinsically and irrevocably linked to our country’s overall economic prosperity.

At NTIA, we have spent the last eight years focused on many of the key building blocks that support a strong digital economy. We have developed and managed the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act broadband grants, which added over 117,000 miles of fiber across the country. We have convened multistakeholder processes to address key cybersecurity and privacy challenges and worked to ensure the free flow of data across borders. And we have provided key support to the Commerce Department’s Digital Economy Board of Advisors, which has been examining ways to advance economic growth and opportunity in the digital age. Just yesterday, this panel of private sector experts delivered its first set of recommendations identifying key actions the Department can take to support the digital economy, encourage growth and increase opportunity.

Today, I will focus on an important driver of our digital infrastructure: wireless connectivity. We have seen phenomenal growth in the use of wireless gadgets in the last decade from smartphones to tablets to electronic fitness trackers. In 2011, only 27 percent of Americans reported using a smartphone. In just four years, this number has doubled, while the number of Americans who use multiple wireless devices also has increased dramatically.  But these statistics tell only part of the story of the past eight years. CTIA reports that the amount of data traveling across U.S. wireless networks has skyrocketed from approximately 191 billion megabytes in 2009 to more than 10 trillion megabytes in 2016 – a 50-fold increase.  And all of this is before the first 5G systems are put into service. 

Continued growth and innovation in the wireless sector will hinge in large part on the successful introduction of 5G networks and our ability to deliver the spectrum needed to power this and other next-generation technologies.

This Administration recognized this spectrum challenge from the start.  And we understood this to be a complicated problem because we needed to meet the growing spectrum needs not just of the commercial sector but also government agencies.  To address this challenge, the President tasked NTIA in 2010 to work with the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to make 500 megahertz of additional federal and non-federal spectrum available for wireless broadband within 10 years while also ensuring that agencies could meet their spectrum-driven missions.

To meet the President’s goal, NTIA partnered with the FCC and the relevant federal agencies to develop a 10-year plan to achieve or exceed the target. We established a fast-track process to examine the most promising bands on an expedited basis.  We identified 115 megahertz of spectrum that could be made available for wireless broadband within five years. This included bands that became part of the very successful AWS-3 auction and the FCC’s proceeding to establish the Citizens Broadband Radio Service in the 3.5 GHz band.

As we sit here today, assuming a successful outcome of the FCC’s current incentive auction for TV band spectrum, we will have made more than 300 megahertz of spectrum available for wireless broadband with more in the pipeline. But just to show that the challenge is a persistent one, the goal posts keep moving.  In 2015, Congress passed the Spectrum Pipeline Act and added 130 megahertz to the President’s spectrum target.

From the outset, it was clear to us that in repurposing spectrum, the old method of clearing spectrum of federal users and then making it available for the exclusive use of commercial providers was no longer sustainable. We had moved the easy systems. To continue the old method of spectrum reallocation would cost too much money and take too long. The industry and their customers, as well as our economy, could not afford the cost and delay. Moreover, over the years, the critical missions performed by federal agencies required systems of greater and greater complexity and increased agencies’ needs for spectrum. The opportunities to find spectrum to which to relocate federal operations were dwindling rapidly.

Given this landscape, and considering improvements in technology, we quickly realized we needed to focus on increasing spectrum sharing between federal and nonfederal users. While federal agencies have been sharing spectrum for many years, the commercial sector was not as familiar or comfortable with this approach. While we knew it would take time to persuade most stakeholders that spectrum sharing was the right approach, it really was the only feasible path forward.

Working collaboratively with the White House, FCC, federal agencies and industry, NTIA led this fundamental shift in how we approach spectrum management. Our work to promote and advance spectrum sharing among all users is the key to unlocking unlimited possibilities for future spectrum use including 5G. We have been assisted greatly in this effort by our interagency Policy and Plans Steering Group (the PPSG), the Commerce Spectrum Management Advisory Committee (CSMAC), and the President's Council of Advisors on Science and Technology, or PCAST. In a pivotal 2012 report, PCAST concluded that spectrum sharing offered a vital path forward to meeting the nation’s growing demand for additional spectrum for wireless technologies. Building on his 2010 memorandum, President Obama in 2013 recognized that spectrum sharing not only would be necessary to achieve his original 500 megahertz goal, but its expansion and evolution was essential to the future of spectrum management.

We began to develop a much greater environment of collaboration between industry and the federal government as well as among federal agencies. For sharing to really succeed, we needed greater buy-in from federal agencies as well as more certainty around what they were being asked to do.

This was particularly essential in our work on AWS-3. In identifying federal bands that would become part of the AWS-3 auction, which generated more than $40 billion, government and industry representatives collaborated in working groups under the leadership of CSMAC to study and assess how commercial systems could share spectrum with the variety of government systems in the 1755-1780 MHz band. More than 15 different federal agencies providing 10 different types of services shared this 25 megahertz segment for a range of activities including air combat training systems, precision-guided munitions, law enforcement video surveillance applications and satellite operations.

After much deliberation and study, we were able to develop transition plans to effectively move most of these federal systems out of 1755-1780 MHz band over a 10-year period. This could not have happened without two key elements: government-industry collaboration and spectrum sharing – some during the 10-year transition and some indefinite sharing that will continue around key sites across the country. Importantly, the AWS-3 process also resulted in the planned relocation of certain military systems to the 2025-2110 MHz band primarily used by broadcasters who will now share it with these military systems. We learned a lot from the AWS-3 experience and are applying it to our current and future efforts.

What became clear to us as a result of the AWS-3 work was that we needed an enduring process that can produce and evaluate a steady pipeline of spectrum to meet the increasing needs of both federal and commercial users.

We also needed a more permanent process to identify and prioritize bands for repurposing opportunities.  We needed to be more transparent by improving the availability and quality of data about federal and nonfederal spectrum use. So we developed NTIA’s spectrum compendium to provide the public with detailed reports describing federal spectrum uses in the 225 MHz to 5 GHz bands. This tool offers stakeholders a way to evaluate whether to pursue and ultimately propose innovative sharing solutions. We are now in the process of expanding the range of spectrum bands included in the compendium, which will be particularly useful as we consider new sharing opportunities in the higher bands.

Meanwhile, last month we released a report on the Quantitative Assessments of Spectrum Usage, which examined five bands totaling 960 megahertz of spectrum to determine which ones might be good candidates for potential sharing scenarios. The analysis indicates various types of sharing may be possible in some of these bands, or portions of these bands and gives us a roadmap for the more detailed study that will be necessary before being able to recommend a band for repurposing.

We know that research and experimentation will be key to helping us determine whether spectrum can be repurposed. We are expanding the capabilities of our Institute for Telecommunication Sciences in Boulder, Colorado to perform the technical work to expand sharing, including monitoring and measurements and improved propagation modeling.  A key asset of ITS is its objectivity and neutrality in assessing new technologies, working with both federal and commercial stakeholders to provide scientifically sound data.

As we examine whether a federal spectrum band can be repurposed, we take into account a number of considerations. We must first fully understand how federal agencies are using a band to meet their missions. We also need to consider the suitability of particular bands for non-federal use, including whether there are synergies with other current or pending allocations. We also must evaluate the international considerations, such as relevant intergovernmental agreements regarding global spectrum allocations.

In all cases, our objective remains the same: we want to employ a detailed, rigorous set of analyses that involve all affected stakeholders to generate sound, fact-based spectrum policy decisions. In some cases, we are able to reach a conclusion that spectrum can be repurposed; in others the science and the reality of current uses may lead us to a different conclusion.

For example, the framework developed by NTIA, the FCC and the Department of Defense for shared use of the 3.5 GHz band offers a particularly promising roadmap for future efforts. In this case, we needed to overcome the challenge of introducing commercial broadband systems into a band used for military radars. We knew that the intermittent nature of the radar systems offered an opportunity for commercial operations in the band as well. The challenge we faced was figuring out a way to avoid having to draw large exclusion zones to protect the incumbent federal radar systems. We knew this would limit the ability of commercial providers to fully utilize the band.

NTIA engineers took an initial critical step by collaborating with DoD and FCC staff on groundbreaking analysis and modeling techniques that resulted in significantly reduced geographic exclusion zones. The overall approach to sharing in the 3.5 GHz band, however, will go much farther by incorporating the innovative use of spectrum access databases and technology that sense wireless devices in the band to enable an increasingly dynamic sharing environment. In addition, the FCC’s three-tiered access and licensing model creates a framework that maximizes the use of the band by incumbents and different classes of new users. Despite this complex framework, government and industry stakeholders are making great strides as we work to put this valuable mid-band spectrum to use to increase the capacity of broadband wireless connections and support 5G services.

Most recently, our collaboration with the FCC in its Spectrum Frontiers proceeding made available approximately 11 gigahertz of spectrum in the millimeter wave range – much of it shared. This spectrum will enable innovative new services that will feature the high-capacity and low-latency characteristics that are the emerging hallmarks of 5G. These very high bands also open up new opportunities for spectrum sharing, unlicensed and licensed spectrum use, and dual-use technologies to enable not only new commercial services but also to satisfy critical government requirements.

We also have been examining whether we could meet industry’s request for expanded unlicensed access in the 5 GHz band for Wi-Fi and other uses.  For the 5350-5475 MHz band, or 5.3 GHz, we had to evaluate whether unlicensed devices could operate without degrading the performance of critical federal radars. Unfortunately, the methodical analysis we conducted in collaboration with federal agencies, the FCC and industry led us to conclude that there is no feasible path forward today to share the 5.3 GHz band.  Those who have been following our efforts in this band likely are not surprised by this development as stakeholders on all sides have known for some time that we had high hurdles to overcome. 

But while this may be a setback in terms of this particular band, it shows that our process is rigorous and works. It is fundamental that all stakeholders have trust and confidence that we will run a fair and objective process. Over the long run, I am confident that this process will result in increased commercial access to spectrum.

At the same time, we have been testing potential approaches to sharing the upper 5 GHz band (5850-5920 MHz) between vehicle-to-vehicle safety communications and unlicensed uses such as Wi-Fi.  NTIA is working collaboratively with the FCC, Department of Transportation, and industry stakeholders on this front.

Overall we have worked to ensure we are positioned to respond to commercial demand and an evolving market and this should guide future activity. Rapid advances in technology, including quickly developing 5G in particular, and continuously evolving business models means a number of our previous assumptions about spectrum have become outdated. For example, the commercial mobile industry for a number of years was calling for significantly more access to spectrum in the lower spectrum bands below 3 GHz. This so-called “beachfront” spectrum was desirable because it allowed wireless carriers to extend the coverage of their networks by enabling wireless signals to travel long distances and penetrate building walls.

As devices become more capable, however, mobile networks also need to evolve to support really high bandwidth, high-volume applications such as next-generation video delivery, virtual reality, and automation. The very wide blocks of spectrum required for these services simply are not available in the lower bands. Mid-band spectrum has been opened up recent years and now recent improvements in technology have allowed industry to make use of the much higher frequencies in the millimeter wave range that only a few short years ago were not widely considered suitable for mobile broadband.

Over the years, there has been much discussion about creating incentives for agencies to make more spectrum available for commercial use. The most effective incentive is to provide agencies the necessary resources to research alternatives to their existing uses of spectrum and to upgrade to more efficient technologies. A key tool in this regard is the Spectrum Relocation Fund. We have worked with the White House and Congress to expand authorized uses of the fund to enable agencies to conduct research and related activities that promise to increase spectrum efficiency. The fund was first established in 2004 to reimburse federal agencies for the costs associated with repurposing spectrum identified for auction by the FCC. Congress made important and needed changes to the fund as part of the 2015 Spectrum Pipeline Act to broaden the scope of eligible expenses covered under the fund.

These efforts are beginning to bear fruit as federal agencies have developed spectrum pipeline plans for submission to a Technical Panel made up of representatives from NTIA, the FCC and the White House’s Office of Management and Budget (OMB) for its approval. Prior to the end of this Administration, I anticipate the transmittal of plans to Congress that utilize this new authority for the first time, giving federal agencies the opportunity and incentive to explore new bands while protecting mission critical functions. As an example, the Federal Aviation Administration, in partnership with the DoD, the Department of Homeland Security and NOAA will be assessing the possibility of consolidating various radar capabilities and may result in making some portion of the 1300-1350 MHz band available for shared use. NOAA has also submitted a proposal to study the potential of shared access to 1675-1680 MHz band, which is currently used for meteorological satellite services.

While we believe agencies are making good-faith efforts to meet our spectrum challenges, we know there is still more we can do to make the most effective use of federal spectrum. I do believe that the additional flexibility that Congress authorized for the Spectrum Relocation Fund was the single most important step that could be taken in the short term. Perhaps the fund can be further strengthened in the future with additional funding and flexibility, for example, by supporting research into allowing more unlicensed use in federal bands.

We are not convinced that other incentive proposals put forward to date offer approaches that are likely to be successful. These proposals generally rely on market-based incentives. However, federal agencies are simply unable to respond to market-based incentives in the same way as commercial spectrum users. Agencies are driven by mission requirements, rather than profit, and they are subject to budget and statutory requirements. In this mission-based context, agencies do not have the tools to assess economic efficiency. Moreover, for an incentive to be effective, it must influence the appropriate decision-makers at the right time. We are continuing to explore potential mechanisms that might be effective. Ultimately we hope to make enough progress that we can bring concepts forward and begin a dialogue with federal agencies and other stakeholders.

The evolution to 5G and the expansion of the Internet of Things, or IoT, brings with them a whole new set of challenges to providing a steady stream of spectrum for a wide range of uses and applications, while also continuing to ensure federal users have the airwaves they need. 

We are just starting to explore the spectrum policy implications of the emergence of new technologies such as drones, connected cars and the vast array of IoT connected devices. The data and analytics firm IHS estimates that the number of connected IoT devices will double from 15 billion in 2015 to more than 30 billion by 2020. The FAA estimates that sales of drones for personal and commercial use could increase from 2.5 million in 2016 to as high as 7 million by 2020.

5G is expected to enable very high speed mobile broadband. But if you are a precision manufacturer, redundancy and reliability might be a higher priority than speed. Or if you are a surgeon performing an operation on a patient remotely, you might also need very low latency in your mobile connection to avoid any delay. The aim of the technology and associated 5G standards is to allow for that. Numerous examples from connected vehicles to various smart city applications will have their own unique requirements.

The latest wireless standard LTE ushered in advances in technologies that allow mobile operators to mix and match their various spectrum holdings as needed while also offloading some of their demand onto Wi-Fi. This approach was supported by advances in network technology such as small cells, distributed antenna systems, and other innovations. 5G will incorporate these capabilities and more. In addition to supporting current spectrum bands, it will also include deployments in very high bands, such as in the millimeter wave range above 24 GHz, frequencies that are being made available for mobile broadband through the FCC’s Spectrum Frontiers proceeding. 

As we prepare for the innovations that 5G will bring, we also need to understand that growth in the demand for spectrum is not limited to commercial and consumer use. Just as innovations in technology have driven growth in the commercial wireless market, government agencies are finding new and better ways to more effectively deliver on their critical missions.  Spectrum makes it possible for soldiers to communicate with their commanders on the battlefield and from remote locations; helps First Responders react quickly and safely in times of emergency; ensures that NASA spacecraft can transmit important data back to Earth; enables National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) satellites to accurately track the weather so communities can better prepare for storms; and allows air traffic controllers to guide planes safely.

As I conclude, let me leave you with some final thoughts about what we have learned over the last eight years as well as some issues that I believe need additional attention in the immediate and near term if we are to ensure that 5G and all spectrum based technologies reach their true potential.

First, there is no longer any question that spectrum sharing has to be a major part of the solution. And the only way sharing will work is by maintaining and even extending collaborative and cooperative processes and relationships that bring all affected stakeholders together, including the FCC and NTIA and the spectrum user community including federal and non-federal users.

Second, as the airwaves become more congested, we need to develop and enforce minimal technical rules to protect against unauthorized harmful interference. Automated enforcement approaches make a lot of sense but will require increased investment to develop interference analysis tools. I also believe we are going to have to finally address the performance characteristics of spectrum receivers. Otherwise, you can limit the ability to effectively use all available spectrum. And we must take advantage of new opportunities such as 5G to build enforcement tools into the technology.

Third, as a nation, and really even as a global spectrum community, we must continue to invest in research and development of technologies that will help us make the most effective and efficient use of spectrum.  There are pieces in place, from expanded use of the Spectrum Relocation Fund, to the Wireless Spectrum R&D consortium to the National Science Foundation’s Advanced Wireless Research Initiative. But I hope that collectively we will do even more.

Fourth, I would like to see additional focus to more accurately quantify current spectrum demand, usage and projections of future requirements – for both non-federal and federal use. Technologies and business models change rapidly. To ensure we keep up with these changes, we need to focus on actual needs. Wireless operators appear to be concentrating on expanding capacity in a localized fashion to address the most congested parts of their networks. How will we collectively ensure that more areas get covered by the latest technologies and dead zones are minimized? How granular does coverage need to be for emerging 5G applications? For IoT specifically? How important is reliability in an IoT environment? These are questions that will need to be considered in weighing future spectrum policy decisions.

I am proud of the collaborative effort NTIA has established in the last eight years and the strides we have made in creating an enduring spectrum pipeline that is going to support the evolution to 5G and whatever lies beyond the horizon. We have set the stage for a new era of substantially increased, dynamic spectrum sharing. Innovating with our technical and policy tools, NTIA is well positioned to meet the increasing and evolving spectrum demands of federal and non-federal spectrum users. 

While my time at NTIA is coming to a close in a few weeks, I am confident that that we have the structure and team in place to build on our success and ensure the United States remains a global leader in wireless innovation.

Thank you for listening.