This article is a part of the Retrospective on Ajit Pai's Tenure as FCC Chairman symposium.
Chairman Ajit Pai prioritized making new spectrum available for 5G. To his credit, he succeeded. Over the course of four years, Chairman Pai made available more high-band and mid-band spectrum, for licensed use and unlicensed use, than any other Federal Communications Commission chairman. He did so in the face of unprecedented opposition from other federal agencies, navigating the chaotic currents of the Trump administration with political acumen and courage. The Pai FCC will go down in history as the 5G FCC, and as the chairman who protected the primacy of FCC control over commercial spectrum policy.
At the same time, the Pai FCC will also go down in history as the most conventional FCC on spectrum policy in the modern era. Chairman Pai undertook no sweeping review of spectrum policy in the manner of former Chairman Michael Powell and no introduction of new and radically different spectrum technologies such as the introduction of unlicensed spectrum and spread spectrum in the 1980s, or the introduction of auctions in the 1990s. To the contrary, Chairman Pai actually rolled back the experimental short-term license structure adopted in the 3.5 GHz Citizens Broadband Radio Service (CBRS) band and replaced it with the conventional long-term with renewal expectation license. He missed a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to dramatically expand the availability of unlicensed use of the TV white spaces (TVWS) via repacking after the television incentive auction. In reworking the rules for the 2.5 GHz band, although Pai laudably embraced the recommendation to create an application window for rural tribal lands, he rejected the proposal to allow nonprofits a chance to use the band for broadband in favor of conventional auction policy.
Ajit Pai’s Spectrum Policy Gave the US a Strong Position for 5G and Wi-Fi 6
To fully appreciate Chairman Pai’s accomplishments, we must first fully appreciate the urgency of opening new spectrum, and the challenges Pai faced from within the Trump administration itself. While providers can (and should) repurpose spectrum from older technologies to newer technologies, successful widespread deployment can only take place when sufficient amounts of new spectrum become available. This “green field” spectrum allows providers to build out new technologies with the most up-to-date equipment without disrupting existing subscriber services. The protocols developed for mobile 5G services work best with “mid-band” spectrum (generally considered to be frequencies between 2 GHz and 6 GHz). At the time Pai became chairman, the FCC did not have any mid-band spectrum identified for auction.
In addition, spectrum available for unlicensed use has become increasingly congested as more and more services depend on Wi-Fi and other unlicensed applications. Indeed, we have become so dependent on Wi-Fi for home broadband and networking that people routinely talk about buying “Wi-Fi” from commercial broadband providers rather than buying “internet access.” The United States further suffered a serious disadvantage moving forward to next generation Wi-Fi, Wi-Fi 6, because the U.S. lacked a contiguous block of spectrum large enough to take advantage of Wi-Fi 6’s gigabit capabilities. Without gigabit Wi-Fi, Americans will increasingly be unable to use the applications that gigabit broadband to the home makes possible.
But virtually all spectrum—particularly mid-band spectrum—have significant incumbents. These incumbents include federal users, particularly the U.S. Department of Defense. Finding new spectrum optimal for 5G required reclaiming spectrum from these incumbents. Unlicensed services do not require relocating incumbent users but creating such “underlay” unlicensed spectrum access requires rules to prevent unlicensed operations from causing harmful interference to licensed services. Needless to say, incumbent services fiercely resist any change in spectrum-allocation rules, claiming that reducing their spectrum allocation or permitting unlicensed services will compromise valuable existing services, while simultaneously causing harmful interference.
The need to reallocate unprecedented amounts of spectrum to ensure successful 5G and Wi-Fi 6 deployment in the United States created an unholy alliance of powerful incumbents, commercial and federal, dedicated to blocking FCC action. Federal agencies—in violation of established federal spectrum policy—publicly challenged the FCC’s spectrum-allocation decisions. Powerful industry incumbents—such as the auto industry, the power industry, and defense contractors—aggressively lobbied Congress to reverse the FCC’s spectrum action by legislation. The National Telecommunications and Information Agency (NTIA), the federal agency tasked with formulating federal spectrum policy, was missing in action as it rotated among different acting agency heads. As the chair and ranking member of the House Commerce Committee noted, this unprecedented and very public opposition by federal agencies to FCC spectrum policy threatened U.S. wireless interests both domestically and internationally.
Navigating this hostile terrain required Pai to exercise both political acumen and political will. Pai accomplished his goal of reallocating 600 MHz of spectrum for auction, opening over 1200 MHz of contiguous spectrum for unlicensed use, and authorized the new entrant Ligado Networks over the objections of the DOD. He did so by a combination of persuading President Donald Trump of the importance of maintaining U.S. leadership in 5G, and insisting on impeccable analysis by the FCC’s engineers to provide support for the reallocation and underlay decisions. On the most significant votes, Pai secured support (or partial support) from the Democrats. Perhaps most importantly, Pai successfully defended the institutional role of the FCC as the ultimate decisionmaker on commercial spectrum use, not subject to a “heckler’s veto” by other federal agencies.
Missed Innovation, ‘Command and Control Lite‘
While acknowledging Pai’s accomplishments, a fair consideration of Pai’s legacy must also consider his shortcomings. As chairman, Pai proved the most conservative FCC chair on spectrum policy since the 1980s. The Reagan FCC produced unlicensed and spread spectrum rules. The Clinton FCC created the spectrum auction regime. The Bush FCC included a spectrum task force and produced the concept of database management for unlicensed services, creating the TVWS and laying the groundwork for CBRS in the 3.5 GHz band. The Obama FCC recommended and created the world’s first incentive auction.
The Trump FCC does more than lack comparable accomplishments; it actively rolled back previous innovations. Within the first year of his chairmanship, Pai began a rulemaking designed to roll back the innovative priority access licensing (PALs). Under the rules adopted under the previous chairman, PALs provided exclusive use on a census block basis for three years with no expectation of renewal. Pai delayed the rollout of CBRS for two years to replace this approach with a standard license structure of 10 years with an expectation of renewal, explicitly to facilitate traditional carrier investment in traditional networks. Pai followed the same path when restructuring the 2.5 GHz band. While laudably creating a window for Native Americans to apply for 2.5 GHz licenses on rural tribal lands, Pai rejected proposals from nonprofits to adopt a window for non-commercial providers to offer broadband. Instead, he simply eliminated the educational requirement and adopted a standard auction for distribution of remaining licenses.
Similarly, in the unlicensed space, Pai consistently declined to promote innovation. In the repacking following the broadcast incentive auction, Pai rejected the proposal of structuring the repacking to ensure usable TVWS in every market. Instead, under Pai, the FCC managed the repacking so as to minimize the burden on incumbent primary and secondary licensees. As a result, major markets such as Los Angeles have zero channels available for unlicensed TVWS operation. This effectively relegates the service to a niche rural service, augmenting existing rural wireless ISPs.
The result is a modified form of “command and control,” the now-discredited system where the FCC would allocate licenses to provide specific services such as “FM radio” or “mobile pager service.” While preserving license flexibility in name, the licensing rules are explicitly structured to promote certain types of investment and business cases. The result is to encourage the same types of licensees to offer improved and more powerful versions of the same types of services, while discouraging more radical innovations.
Chairman Pai can rightly take pride in his overall 5G legacy. He preserved the institutional role of the FCC as the agency responsible for expanding our nation’s access to wireless services against sustained attack by federal agencies determined to protect their own spectrum interests. He provided enough green field spectrum for both licensed services and unlicensed services to permit the successful deployment of 5G and Wi-Fi 6. At the same time, however, he failed to encourage more radical spectrum policies that have made the United States the birthplace of such technologies as mobile broadband and Wi-Fi. We have won the “race” to next generation wireless, but the players and services are likely to stay the same.