The Current Spectrum of All Things Spectrum: Auction Authority, Interagency Cooperation, and Competition


Spectrum is the lifeblood of our wireless connections, fueling our smartphones, tablets, IoT appliances, and more. Currently, the United States is facing a spectrum deficit. While there is momentum in Congress to address this deficit, the reality remains that the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has no Congressional authority to auction spectrum. And even if they did, the FCC does not have a viable pipeline of spectrum to auction. This all points to the fact that we are behind the rest of the world in access to available full-powered, licensed spectrum, and it’s impacting investment, innovation, and national security.

As Clete Johnson, Senior Fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, summarized in a recent Senate Commerce Committee Hearing on Spectrum & National Security, if unlicensed spectrum – Wi-Fi – is the “capillaries” of the wireless ecosystem, licensed spectrum serves as the “arteries,” and they are nearing capacity without a lifeline.  We need to unclog our country’s arteries and bolster the licensed networks that sustain our connections.

So, who exactly is talking about spectrum, and what are the components to this complicated issue? Recently, Georgetown Center for Business & Public Policy’s Little Nuggets of Tech and Telecom featured Umair Javed, CTIA’s SVP of Spectrum, to unpack all things spectrum.

Key Takeaways:

Congress must renew auction authority and create a pipeline of spectrum, and the Spectrum Pipeline Act of 2024 does just that. 

The FCC spectrum auction authority, which has historically aided our spectrum efficiency, bolstered our national security, and created federal revenue, expired on March 9, 2023. This coupled with a dry commercial spectrum pipeline has set us back. But there is good news, these problems have tested, sound solutions.

The Spectrum Pipeline Act of 2024 sponsored by Senators Cruz and Thune renews the FCC’s auction authority, gives the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) direction to identify and auction a specific amount of full-powered, commercial licensed spectrum, and sets a defined timeline for action. These are the right solutions to spur innovation and streamline our growing number of connections. It is the same approach that Congress has taken to enact multi-year extensions of the FCC’s auction authority in 1997, 2006, and again in 2012.

Spectrum should be a win-win for both everyday American’s use and the Department of Defense. 

Today, domestic spectrum allocations are unbalanced.  Right now, federal agencies hold large amounts of available mid-band spectrum for defense and national security initiatives. An effort to understand the Department of Defense’s needs, while also optimizing spectrum for commercial use must begin. To really lead globally, we must identify ways to make more spectrum available for full-power, licensed commercial use in the U.S. as soon as possible, while also supporting the needs of our military and national security.

A scarcity mindset will not sustain the U.S. or propel us into the future. More collaboration and an optimization mindset is essential to upgrading America’s networks and achieving optimized, efficient use.

More available full-power mid-band spectrum will foster competition, giving consumers more choice. 

Fixed Wireless Access (FWA), also known as 5G home, has revolutionized the broadband landscape. The newer, low-cost option is making broadband more accessible, helping close the digital divide. In fact, 20% of fixed wireless users are first time broadband users, and the fastest growing broadband providers are wireless companies.

“Fixed Wireless Access is the early 5G use case that’s really emerged – a success story,” said Javed. “It shows how U.S. innovation in wireless is benefiting not just the country but bringing valuable competition and lower prices to broadband consumers.”

The lack of spectrum hampers this innovative technology, threatens our options in choosing the best broadband provider for our needs, limits broadband access, and constrains improved quality coverage.

What’s next?

  1. Congress must reauthorize the FCC to auction spectrum, coupled with a pipeline of full power licensed spectrum.
  2. Federal agencies and commercial industry need to find common ground that points toward spectrum optimization.
  3. National security and broadband competition must be protected by setting a clear timeline for spectrum auctions.

Addressing the ability for spectrum auctions to proceed, the imminent compromise needed to supply spectrum demand, and new technologies that will nourish competition, will push the United States forward, offering a new window to global leadership and increased national security.