U.S. Announces Plan To Release Prized Mid-Band Spectrum For 5G

The U.S. government has rolled out a plan to make available desirable mid-band spectrum in an arrangement under which the military would share with commercial providers. However, these new frequencies would be used in mid-2022 at the earliest.   

The White House and the United States (U.S.) Department of Defense (DOD) will share a prime slice of mid band electromagnetic frequency with commercial entities that would be ideal for 5G according to their announcements. The development of the next iteration of wireless communications has been hampered in the U.S. because the DOD controls a range of the usable frequency spectrum other nations have been using to test and deploy 5G. This announcement would allow commercial entities to ultimately bid on 100 continuous MHz of spectrum that has been used exclusively by the DOD for guidance and navigation. It is an open question whether the relinquishment of this spectrum will speed 5G development and adoption in the U.S., and the timeline provided by the Administration suggests licenses to use these mid-band frequencies will not be in the hands of commercial entities until mid-2022 at the earliest, assuming President Donald Trump is reelected, for a Biden Administration may propose a different course of action. Nonetheless, one Administration official asserted releasing this 100 MHz will be “the fastest transfer of Federal spectrum to commercial use in history.”

The Trump Administration has pursued a number of efforts to foster the development, deployment, and use of 5G in the U.S. A key part of the motivation for doing so is the role companies from the People’s Republic of China (PRC) have played in pushing forward this technology such as Huawei. This PRC company is playing a significant, perhaps even dominant role, in helping pioneer the technology that would allow nations around the globe to move from 4G to the significantly faster download and upload speeds of 5G because of much higher bandwidth. Experts believe this transition will be a paradigm shift in wireless communications the same way transitioning from 3G to 4G earlier in this decade changed how people used smartphones to cite just one technology. For example, 4G speeds range between 10-100 Mbps whereas 5G will allow for 1000-1400 Mbps and will allow for the development of faster phones and computers, more functional Internet of Things devices and networks, new potential military uses, and other applications not yet conceived of. However, there is the belief that whichever nation is on the forefront of developing this technology and the standards used to govern the various protocols will gain the first mover advantage and may reap a lion’s share of the benefits. Hence, if this view if correct, being first and preeminent in 5G is a national security issue, and, whether true or not, policymakers in Beijing, Washington, and other capitals believe this to be the case. At present, in the assessment of a DOD advisory board, the U.S. is among the first tier of competitors along with the PRC, South Korea, and Japan.

The announcement by the White House and DOD matters because while other nations have been allowing their commercial entities a portion of the spectrum considered ideal for 5G between 1 and 6 GHz (aka sub-6GHz), much of this spectrum has been used by the Pentagon for national security systems. Consequently, there has been a push from policymakers for use higher frequencies on the electromagnetic spectrum between 24 and 300 GHz. However, if the U.S. were to do so, the fear is that this decision would put U.S. technology companies using and operating in the 5G realm at a disadvantage as virtually the rest of the world would use sub-6Ghz spectrum. The Obama Administration began grappling with this issue, and the Trump Administration has continued through a variety of means, including a working group that led to the present announcement that 100 MHz of sub-6GHz will be available to companies and entities looking to deploy and use 5G.

In a press release, the Trump Administration said

  • Today, at President Donald J. Trump’s direction, the White House and the DOD announced that 100 megahertz of contiguous, coast-to-coast mid-band spectrum will be made available for commercial 5G deployment.
  • President Trump is committed to strengthening United States leadership in 5G communications for the security and prosperity of the American people. With 5G networks already available to more than 250 million Americans, we have made significant strides. The availability of more mid-band spectrum is a key factor to driving widespread 5G access across rural America.
  • Throughout this process, the Trump Administration has worked carefully to ensure that commercial use of this critically needed mid-band spectrum will never compromise military preparedness or national security.

In a statement, DOD Chief Information Officer Dana Deasy explained:

  • In mid-April, the White House and DOD met to discuss what could be done quickly to make more mid-band spectrum available for 5G in the 3 gigahertz band range, commonly known as mid-band, which is paramount to maintaining American leadership in 5G.
  • As a result, the America’s Mid-Band Initiative Team (AMBIT) was established and worked on an unprecedented 15-week schedule to make 100 megahertz (MHz) of contiguous mid-band spectrum available in the 3450-3550 MHz band for 5G by the end of the summer.
  • The 3450-3550 MHz band supports critical DOD radar operations including high-powered defense radar systems on fixed, mobile, shipborne, and airborne platforms. Capabilities for these systems include air defense, missile and gunfire control, counter-mortar, bomb scoring, battlefield weapon locations, air traffic control, and range safety.
  • With this additional 100 MHz, the U.S. now has a contiguous 530 megahertz of mid-band spectrum from 3450-3980 MHz to enable higher capacity 5G networks.
  • The Federal Communications Commission will auction the spectrum after service rules are adopted. Through the hard work of the AMBIT, we expect these rules to be similar to AWS-3, where for the most part the spectrum will be available for commercial use without limits, while simultaneously minimizing impact to DOD operations.

U.S. Chief Technology Officer (CTO) and acting Under Secretary of Defense for Research and Engineering Michael Kratsios claimed on a call with reporters that the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) will hold an auction for the 100 MHz in late December 2021 and by mid-2022 the winning bidders would be able to start using their slice of spectrum. FCC Chair Ajit Pai asserted in a statement that “[t]ogether with the spectrum being made available for 5G in the C-band as well as the 3.5 GHz band, we are now on track to have a 530-megahertz swath of mid-band spectrum available for 5G from 3.45 to 3.98 GHz…[and] [t]he FCC looks forward to moving quickly to adopt service rules for the 3.45 GHz band and then hold an auction to bring this prime mid-band spectrum to market.”

Preceding the AMBIT initiative, in January, the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) prepared a technical report on the 3450-3550 MHz band “[a]s part of its ongoing effort to identify candidate bands for repurposing to accommodate commercial wireless services.” NTIA worked with DOD, “which operates the federal systems in the band, to determine the conditions needed to enable commercial services to operate without causing impact to incumbent operations.” NTIA asserted “[t]he report indicates that commercial operations would impact incumbent federal systems; however, spectrum sharing that provides both sufficient protection to incumbent operations and an attractive commercial business case may be possible with further information and analysis, including studying the efficacy of deploying appropriate time-based sharing mechanisms.”

The NTIA found

  • The primary allocations in the band include federal radiolocation and aeronautical radionavigation. The incumbent federal operations currently consist of shipborne radars, several types of airborne systems, and ground-based radars. The shipborne radars operate at over twenty ports and along the entire Atlantic, Pacific, and Gulf coasts. Some of the airborne systems operate nationwide, while other systems are limited to four locations. The ground-based radars operate at over one hundred locations, including many near high-population areas. In addition, DOD continues to deploy systems at additional locations and to develop new systems for operation in the band.
  • While some federal systems operate intermittently and in only one part of the 3450-3550 MHz band at a time, the time when they operate and the specific frequencies they use can be dynamic and unpredictable depending on mission requirements. In the aggregate and in some cases individually, the federal systems use the entire band throughout the United States and its possessions, including near and over the most populated areas. Current and future DOD system usage and operational mission requirements are important considerations for establishing sharing conditions. Sufficient information, however, was not available to fully account for these considerations, and therefore further study is needed. In addition, some aspects of the systems are classified, which reduced the ability for the report to be as transparent regarding the analysis as otherwise possible, but did not affect the quality of the results.

The NTIA proposed a “dynamic, time-based sharing mechanism” in the 3450-3550 MHz band as a means of allowing commercial entities to access what is considered a prime frequency for 5G while reserving, as needed, the ability of the DOD to operate crucial defense systems. The NTIA stated:

  • Frequency-based and geographic-based sharing approaches would result in significant restrictions on commercial services, in terms of emitter power limits and exclusion zones, making sufficient access for viable commercial applications unlikely. However, a dynamic, time-based sharing mechanism could present a potentially attractive approach to both protecting federal systems and providing viable commercial operations. Commercial operations would be contingent on spectrum availability, which will depend on the frequency, time, and location of federal system operations.
  • The assessment identifies further work needed to reach a more definitive conclusion regarding the extent to which a sharing mechanism would enable assured access for uninterrupted (i.e., without harmful interference) federal missions while also enabling commercial shared access. The study assumed that all federal systems could implement a spectrum sharing mechanism, except for the nationwide airborne systems, which present unique challenges due to their large area of operations. The table below summarizes the power levels that would be possible for commercial operations.

In late 2019, The Department of Commerce, acting through the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA), released its initial annual report “on the status of existing efforts and planned near- to mid-term spectrum repurposing initiatives” as required by an October 2018 Presidential Memorandum “on Developing a Sustainable Spectrum Strategy for America’s Future.” In the report, NTIA explained

This report is part of a broader effort to maintain the U.S. position as a global leader in pioneering and sustaining technological and economic leadership in developing and deploying spectrum-dependent products and services, from 5G wireless systems to innovative satellite and space applications. A significant component of this effort is the construction and execution of the National Spectrum Strategy called for by the Presidential Memorandum. The U.S. Government will continue to support this leadership in ground-breaking wireless technologies, including those that greatly improve the spectrum efficiency and effectiveness of federal operations. This is being accomplished through ongoing efforts to assess the Nation’s spectrum needs and to identify additional bands with federal and non-federal allocations to serve those needs. This will entail examining and implementing effective protective measures for incumbent services and managing the transitions as spectrum uses shift and new spectrum-sharing tools and techniques are developed and implemented. These ongoing efforts constitute a process that resembles a “pipeline” for continuous identification and assessment of bands, followed by repurposing or implementing other spectrum access mechanisms wherever needed and feasible.

In July 2019, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s (DHS) Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA) released an assessment that “Fifth Generation Mobile Network (5G) will present opportunities and challenges, and its implementation will introduce vulnerabilities related to supply chains, deployment, network security, and the loss of competition and trusted options.

  • Use of 5G components manufactured by untrusted companies could expose U.S. entities to risks introduced by malicious software and hardware, counterfeit components, and component flaws caused by poor manufacturing processes and maintenance procedures. 5G hardware, software, and services provided by untrusted entities could increase the risk of compromise to the confidentiality, integrity, and availability of network assets. Even if U.S. networks are secure, U.S. data that travels overseas through untrusted telecommunication networks is potentially at risk of interception, manipulation, disruption, and destruction.
  • 5G will use more components than previous generations of wireless networks, and the proliferation of 5G infrastructure may provide malicious actors more attack vectors. The effectiveness of 5G’s security enhancements will in part depend on proper implementation and configuration.
  • Despite security enhancement over previous generations, it is unknown what new vulnerabilities may be discovered in 5G networks. Further, 5G builds upon previous generations of wireless networks and will initially be integrated into 4G Long-Term Evolution (LTE) networks that contain some legacy vulnerabilities.
  • Untrusted companies may be less likely to participate in interoperability efforts. Custom 5G technologies that do not meet interoperability standards may be difficult to update, repair, and replace. This potentially increases the lifecycle cost of the product and delays 5G deployment if the equipment requires replacement. The lack of interoperability may also have negative impacts on the competitive market as companies could be driven out if the available competitive market decreases.

CISA further explained that “[t]he United States Government can manage these vulnerabilities and increase the security of communications networks as 5G is adopted by:

  • Encouraging continued development of trusted 5G technologies, services, and products.
  • Encouraging continued trusted development of future generations of communications technologies.
  • Promoting international standards and processes that are open, transparent, consensus–driven, and that do not place trusted companies at a disadvantage.
  • Limiting the adoption of 5G equipment with known or suspected vulnerabilities.
  • Continued engagement with the private sector on risk identification and mitigation efforts.
  • Ensuring robust security capabilities for 5G applications and services.

In 2019, an advisory body to the Pentagon drafted a report on the options facing the Department of Defense (DOD) as the U.S. and other nations are on the cusp of transitioning to the next generation of wireless networks that promise even faster speeds that will likely drive the development of new applications and devices. The Defense Innovation Board (Board) released “THE 5G ECOSYSTEM: RISKS & OPPORTUNITIES FOR DOD” to “insight into the commercial landscape as well as the DOD landscape to give a comprehensive view of the stakeholders and future of 5G.” The Board explained that “[t]he shift from 4G to 5G will drastically impact the future of global communication networks and fundamentally change the environment in which DOD operates.” The Board conceded that “[w]hile DOD will feel the impact of 5G, the rollout itself will be driven by the U.S. commercial sector.”

The Board explained

The term “5G” refers to the oncoming fifth generation of wireless networks and technology that will produce a step-change improvement in data speed, volume, and latency (delay in data transfer) over fourth generation (4G and 4G LTE) networks. 5G will enable a host of new technologies that will change the standard of public and private sector operations, from autonomous vehicles to smart cities, virtual reality, and battle networks. Historical shifts between wireless generations suggest that the first-mover country stands to gain billions in revenue accompanied by substantial job creation and leadership in technology innovation. First movers also set standards and practices that were then adopted by subsequent entrants. Conversely, countries that fell behind in previous wireless generation shifts were obligated to adopt the standards, technologies, and architectures of the leading country and missed out on a generation of wireless capabilities and market potential.

The development of 5G will require the bonding together of 100 MHz channels to deliver faster speeds in new spectrums. The Board explained that the U.S., Japan, and South Korea are looking at using the electromagnetic spectrum frequencies between 24 and 300 GHz (aka mmWave) for 5G while other nations, like China, are looking at using the 3 and 4 GHZ range (aka sub-6) for 5G networks. Moreover, in the U.S., the DOD uses the latter spectrum, meaning that any transition could be tricky for 5G using that band of spectrum. The Board noted that “U.S. carriers are primarily focused on mmWave deployment for 5G because most of the 3 and 4 GHz spectrum being used by the rest of the world for 5G are exclusive Federal bands in the United States, extensively used by DOD in particular.”

The Board added that

Spectrum bands in the 3 and 4 Ghz range dominate global 5G activity because of improved propagation (range) over mmWave spectrum, resulting in far fewer base stations needed to be deployed to deliver the same coverage and performance. Because large swaths of the sub-6 bands in the United States are not available for civil/commercial use, U.S. carriers and the FCC (which controls civil spectrum in the US) are betting on mmWave spectrum as the core domestic 5G approach.

The Board stated that “[b]oth DOD and the FCC are currently prioritizing mmWave over sub-6 mid-band spectrum with a particular focus on the 28 and 37 GHz bands, but this is a fundamentally flawed focus due to the impracticality of mmWave deployment.” The Board stated that “DOD must prepare to operate in a sub-6 5G ecosystem, which will require a shift in strategy and a consideration of where DOD is willing to share bandwidth in the sub-6 realm.”

The Board explained that

However, 5G also presents a serious potential risk for DOD going forward. When operating overseas in the future, the vast majority of these networks and systems may depend on 5G infrastructure. If China leads the field in 5G infrastructure and systems, then the future 5G ecosystem will likely have Chinese components embedded throughout. This would pose a serious threat to the security of DOD operations and networks going forward. Additionally, the growth in the number of connected devices increases the potential “attack surface” for adversaries to target across DOD networks, which will require increased vigilance and security across systems. The larger volume of data being transferred will complicate this task, as it will make it more difficult to detect malicious traffic on a network.

The Board asserted that “5G has the ability to enhance DOD decision-making and strategic capabilities from the enterprise network to the tactical edge of the battlefield…[and] will increase DOD’s ability to link multiple systems into a broader network while sharing information in real time, improving communication across Services, geographies, and domains while developing a common picture of the battlefield to improve situational awareness.” The Board claimed that “[t]his improved connectivity may in turn enable a host of new technologies and missions, from hypersonics and hypersonic defense to resilient satellite constellations and mesh networks.”

The Board made the following recommendations:

  • DOD needs to make a plan for sharing sub-6 GHz spectrum to shape the future 5G ecosystem, including an assessment of how much and which bandwidths need to be shared, within what timeframe, and how that sharing will impact DOD systems.
  • DOD must prepare to operate in a “post-Western” wireless ecosystem. This plan should include R&D investments towards system security and resiliency on an engineering and strategic level.
  • DOD should advocate for adjusted trade policies to discourage vulnerabilities in its supply chain on the grounds that they put national security assets and missions at risk.

© Michael Kans, Michael Kans Blog and michaelkans.blog, 2019-2020. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this site’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Michael Kans, Michael Kans Blog, and michaelkans.blog with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Image by helder100 from Pixabay

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