Wireless radio-frequency spectrum remains one of the most valuable assets controlled by government entities around the world, and the U.S. is no exception. Commercial entities have paid billions to receive an exclusive license to develop communications networks that operate within specific bands, representing potentially massive recurring revenue streams that can be tapped for decades.
In September 2020, the U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) announced it was preparing to free up some of its operational spectrum in the 3450-3550 MHz range to support the development of commercial 5G wireless, and issued a Request For Information (RFI) seeking input on how to best develop and deploy its dynamic shared spectrum in this frequency band for 5G and other technology use. Currently, the U.S. military utilizes this 100MHz band for radar systems used in air defense, missile and gunfire control, counter mortar, bomb scoring, battlefield weapon location, air traffic control, and range safety.
This mid-band spectrum is particularly valuable, in terms of supporting 5G technology. High-frequency millimeter-wave 5G technology, using the frequencies between 24GHz and 100GHz, supports very high data transfer speeds, and is not subject to competition with 4G, television, or radio signals. However, the short signal wavelength requires a very dense (and time-consuming and expensive) buildout of base stations and antennas to create a viable network. Conversely, low-band 5G (such as AT&T's 850MHz 5G network, which is being rolled out concurrently with a millimeter-wave 5G network), features a significantly greater coverage area, at the expense of speed.
"Once millimeter-wave 5G is deployed, it's going to be awesome, but it's not going to [fully] deployed for a long time," says Phil Solis, research director for Connectivity and Smartphone Semiconductors at market research firm IDC. "This mid-band spectrum is the sweet spot, with bigger channel sizes, higher speeds, lower latency, and decent coverage" compared with low-band 5G frequencies.
However, DoD's RFI is raising eyebrows among market observers. Instead of simply auctioning off spectrum to commercial bidders, the RFI seeks input on ideas such as DoD owning and operating 5G networks for domestic operations, or leasing the spectrum to commercial carriers, rather than auctioning it off, as was done in 2014 with shared spectrum in the 1695-1710 MHz, 1755-1780 MHz, and 2155-2180 MHz bands.
In the early days of President Trump's term, his administration had expressed interest in the development of a national 5G network in order to help win the "race" against China in the development of 5G networks and technology. More recently, President Trump's 2020 re-election campaign website noted that one of his second-term goals was to "Win the Race to 5G and Establish a National High-Speed Wireless Internet Network." Further reporting from Axios in October cited sources that said White House chief of staff Mark Meadows was putting pressure on the DoD to move ahead with a plan to stand up a 5G wireless network, by following the RFI with an actual solicitation for proposals from companies that would bid to run the network.
The development of a DoD-controlled or operated 5G network could provide benefits to the military, in terms of being able to ensure greater operational security of its systems on the network, as well as the ability to completely shut down or restrict access in the event of a cyberattack or worldwide Internet disruption. However, such security features likely can be deployed on commercially built and operated networks, without requiring the DoD to control the network.
A DoD-controlled network "is certainly something that on the face of it that would improve the security of our systems," says John Arquilla, a military analyst with the Naval Postgraduate School, noting that the military built its own intranet, known as the Navy Marine Corps Intranet (NMCI). "The experience of NMCI suggests to us that functionality is to some extent sacrificed with an intranet, and it turned out that the NMCI's costs [involved] in getting the functionality up to the right level were absolutely enormous." Arquilla noted that the U.S. government incurred significant development costs, as did Electronic Data Systems, the vendor involved in building the network, which ultimately may have led to the company's acquisition by Hewlett-Packard.
That is why it is unlikely DoD will build out its own network, and may instead utilize an industry partner to build, operate, and maintain a network, which will be set up to prioritize DoD usage in emergencies, but otherwise carry commercial 5G traffic. One such company that has submitted an RFI is Rivada Networks, a telecom company that enlisted Republican political consultant Karl Rove to lobby for it (an investor in the company, Rove also serve as an advisor, and is a registered lobbyist for it), and has advocated for a plan under which Rivada Networks would operate a wholesale wireless network that DoD could utilize. The fear, according to some observers, is that Rivada may be given preference over other companies to build out and run such a network, resulting in a potentially billion-dollar contract being assigned based on political favors, rather than simply having the spectrum auctioned off and establishing DoD network-preemption agreements.
"Opening up the spectrum is commercially important, and I think it will be done," Solis says. "It's just a matter of whether this will be a giveaway to Rivada or, if the administration changes, would it be more of the typical spectrum auction?"
For its part, a spokesman for the Department of Defense indicated that as of the end of October, there were "numerous" companies providing submissions to the RFI, and that DoD will post all RFI inputs once review and assessment are complete.
While the Trump Administration did not respond to our request for comment on the RFI and whether the campaign goal to "establish a national 5G network" was serious, Brian Carney, a senior vice president at Rivada Networks, said that the company has no interest in "nationalized or state-owned networks, and would not bid to build one."
Said Carney, "I can't comment on what the president wants or means. I would not assume that a 'national' network would be a 'nationalized' or state-owned or operated network.
Keith Kirkpatrick is Principal, 4K Research & Consulting, LLC, based in New York City, USA.
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