The evolving 5G case study in United States unilateral spectrum planning and policy

Rob Frieden

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

7 Scopus citations


This paper tracks increasingly aggressive initiatives by the United States government to reallocate spectrum on an expedited and unilateral basis well before conclusion of inter-governmental coordination. Rather than embrace the customary commitment to achieve consensus on global spectrum allocations at the International Telecommunication Union (“ITU”), the Federal Communications Commission (“FCC”) has auctioned off large blocks of frequencies for the next generation (“5G”) of wireless services. The FCC might have framed its first 5G auction, reassigning Ultra High Frequency (“UHF”) spectrum, as a one-time deviation from compliance with long standing, intergovernmental coordination procedures. These frequencies have ideal signal propagation characteristics and the Commission could use financial incentives—unavailable in most nations—to expedite “repacking” by incumbent broadcasters willing to move, share or abandon spectrum in exchange for ample financial compensation. However, the FCC has continued to auction off 5G spectrum on grounds that it must find ways to abate an acute shortage of wireless bandwidth and doing so will regain or maintain global leadership in wireless technologies. This paper offers a critical rebuke to unilateral spectrum management, because the short-term benefits expected by the U. S. government likely will be offset by countervailing harms to 5G manufacturers, carriers and consumers. The paper tracks fractious preparation for the ITU's 2019 World Radio Conference by the U.S. delegation and the mixed record achieved there. Additionally, the paper explains how injecting trade, industrial policy and national security issues at the ITU can trigger more delays and disputes, including possible retaliation by nations displeased with U.S. efforts to subvert traditional technology optimization goals. A worst case scenario has the ITU deadlocked and unable to reach closure on “mission critical” spectrum planning issues at World Radio Conferences, convened every four years. The paper concludes that costs and likely challenges to the efficacy and legitimacy of the ITU will reduce the benefits accruing from the FCC's unilateral, spectrum planning campaign.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number102011
JournalTelecommunications Policy
Issue number9
StatePublished - Oct 2020

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Human Factors and Ergonomics
  • Information Systems
  • Electrical and Electronic Engineering


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