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ITIF Report: FCC's 5G Efforts Should Focus on Spectrum, Not Standards

The FCC should continue freeing up high-band spectrum for next-generation 5G mobile broadband rather than control the standards-setting process, and local governments should help streamline the deployment of new infrastructure.

Those are the key policy takeaways from a new report being released Thursday (June 30) by the Information Technology & Innovation Foundation.

Policymakers on every level of the government should aim to make infrastructure deployment as efficient as possible to see the flourishing of 5G networks," said report author Doug Brake, a telecom policy analyst with ITIF.

"Given the fact that many of the technological components of 5G are still in flux, that deployment scenarios are still being explored, and that there is still a good deal of gas in the LTE tank, government action around 5G should be more stage setting than full industrial policymaking," Brake said in the report. "There is certainly a role for government in encouraging 5G to flourish, but industry-led standard setting better allows discovery of new technologies and a more nuanced understanding of what areas are most economical to explore."

Related:Hillary Clinton says she will push for 5G.

Brake said that given the explosion of data traffic, particularly bandwidth-hungry video, speeds will have to increase if wireless is to be a more robust competitor to wireline. For that to happen, wireless only has a few levers to pull. Finding more spectrum is one, another is increasing capacity by improving spectrum efficacy.

But he says there are limits to increasing that efficiency and network engineers are close to butting up against them. "As hard as getting Congress to pass a new law can be, bending the laws of physics is even harder. There are also trade-offs in any system designed—a protocol designed purely for maximizing throughput may not handle other usage scenarios as well," he said.

Brake gives the FCC high marks for 5G stage-setting so far. "The FCC deserves credit for moving quickly to get high-band spectrum into the hands of innovators, and for not being beholden to international bodies, such as the ITU, who are slow to allocate this spectrum to mobile," he said.

The FCC has set aside 30 MHz of low-band spectrum in the broadcast incentive auction that can potentially be auctioned to competitive carriers at discount prices. But Brake cautions against that model for high-band spectrum.

"Regulators should exercise caution in setting reserve prices or payments when it comes to auctioning high-band spectrum. Unnecessarily high auction prices discourage investment in new, unproven technologies that will have significant deployment costs of their own."