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The Pentagon Is Sitting on a Chunk of Valuable Airwaves. Why?

Illustration by Sébastien Thibault As the Trump administration squares off with China’s Huawei over who will dominate the world’s next generation of wireless networks, another battle is emerging closer to home. And in this one, the force causing the most concern isn’t a shadowy Chinese firm, or even a company at all. It’s the Pentagon.…

Illustration by Sébastien Thibault

As the Trump administration squares off with China’s Huawei over who will dominate the world’s next generation of wireless networks, another battle is emerging closer to home. And in this one, the force causing the most concern isn’t a shadowy Chinese firm, or even a company at all. It’s the Pentagon.

The fast new consumer and business network known as 5G, already being touted in Super Bowl ads, will require large new swaths of the airwaves. And for the companies building it out, the most coveted piece of that invisible real estate is the “mid-band,” a set of frequencies that can carry far more data than current cellphone signals.

Since the 1960s, rights over much of the mid-band have been claimed by government agencies, most notably the U.S. Department of Defense, which says it needs to use mid-band waves for research and military communications. Critics say the military is barely using those airwaves, and by squatting on the rights it is blocking American firms from developing better 5G networks.

Now, as 5G moves quickly from a sales pitch to a business reality, a significant battle is erupting between wireless carriers, which want the government to free up the Pentagon’s share of the mid-band airwaves for commercial use, and Pentagon generals, who warn of national-security risks if they lose control.

As they bicker, Chinese companies aren’t waiting: Huawei and others are moving quickly to build and sell equipment that exploits exactly those frequencies. As other nations stock up on infrastructure built by Huawei and other Chinese firms, gear from China is becoming the standard in much of the world — and U.S. producers fear that they’re being shut out of a quickly developing new technology by their own government. The Pentagon, too, is likely to face security concerns in its overseas operations as its mid-band channels get crowded by Chinese-built devices.

Though it hasn’t cracked the front pages yet, the battle over the mid-band airwaves has created strange political dynamics of its own, with big telecom companies trying to budge the Pentagon without triggering an open lobbying war, and Newt Gingrich and Trump campaign manager Brad Parscale joining the battle on behalf of yet another would-be player in the industry. In the process, it’s focusing attention on a big mystery: What is the Pentagon even doing with its valuable slice of the wireless spectrum?

And, with China racing to exploit its lead, the lack of mid-band open to American companies is raising a bigger worry for U.S. competitiveness: Even if the Pentagon finds a way to free up some of the territory, China’s growing head start may mean it’s already too late.

The airwaves are one of the least understood resources in America — invisible and all around us, they power everything from military radar to home Wi-Fi to old-fashioned AM radio. They’re also a top-level tug-of-war in Washington. Theoretically owned by the public, they’re regulated by two separate agencies, neither answerable to the other.

Nearly a century ago, when the invention of radio made it clear that that the airwaves — technically, the electromagnetic spectrum — would be as useful to commerce as to science, Congress created the Federal Communications Commission. The new independent agency would grant licenses to commercial entities like radio operators, TV broadcasters and telecommunications companies. But separately, it also granted the Commerce Department authority to reserve and manage some of the spectrum for government purposes. Today, the FCC auctions parts of the spectrum to private companies, but has no authority over the sizable chunks that Commerce has allocated to agencies such as the Department of Defense.

When the system was set up, that wasn’t a big deal; the airwaves were big enough for everyone. But as radio and TV have been joined by cell carriers and other uses, the commercial airwaves have become more crowded and more valuable, with companies bidding for long-term leases to use certain frequencies. The prices have become dizzying: A 2015 auction of several slices of federally controlled airwaves raised nearly $45 billion.

Not all spectrum is equally useful. At the low-frequency end, signals can travel great distances and penetrate objects, but carry very little information. At the high end, so-called millimeter-wave bands can carry huge quantities of data, but don’t travel far and can be blocked by leaves or even thin walls.

For the emerging 5G network, the “mid-band” occupies a sweet spot between data and distance. Mid-band signals can carry much more data than current cellphone networks without requiring overly dense networks of relay antennas. Mid-band signals look highly desirable to firms trying to connect everything from self-driving cars and surveillance cameras to drones making pinpoint deliveries and even doctors performing remote surgery.

They’re also desirable to the military. The Department of Defense has long laid claim to large pieces of the electromagnetic spectrum for the ever-growing role of electronics in military operations, and by the late 1960s it was clear that the Pentagon wanted, and would hold onto, much of the mid-band.

Battle of the mid-bands

Telecom companies want the FCC to allocate more “mid-band” communications spectrum for their nascent 5G networks. But they’re trying to move into some crowded real estate, with an alphabet soup of government agencies claiming oversight or rights to the desirable frequencies between 2.5 GHz and 6 GHz.

While the private sector has long sought more access to government airwaves, the accelerating push to develop 5G technology has concentrated attention specifically on the Pentagon’s mid-band holdings. For more than a decade, wireless industry lobbyists and policymakers have plotted about how to identify the government’s airwaves that aren’t being put to full use and find ways to auction or share them. The Pentagon, meanwhile, has played a large role in shooting down some of these ideas, such as a bipartisan push on Capitol Hill in recent years to persuade government agencies to give up spectrum in exchange for a cut of the auction revenue.

The questions run deeper than how to get the Pentagon to let go. In fact, it’s not even clear what the military is using its chunks of the spectrum for. Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.), a former wireless executive who’s now the top Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee, a decade ago tried, and failed, to force the Pentagon and other government agencies just to quantify how much of the spectrum they’re actually using. “That’s a hard nut to crack,” Warner said in a recent interview.

The Pentagon maintains that its spectrum holdings support a host of sensitive operations, including issuing orders to nuclear bombers and submarines. But in the absence of legislation like Warner’s, visibility into the government holdings remains a mystery to many on the outside. Charles Clancy, a specialist in wireless communications who previously worked at the secretive National Security Agency, said in an interview that the mid-band spectrum enables a wide mix of warfighting and intelligence functions, including radars needed by airborne command and control planes. Although the Pentagon has spelled out some details of its use, aspects remain classified and there’s no hard mandate it disclose much publicly.

Current and former military leaders also point out that in a world of constantly evolving technology, it’s not always possible to predict which wavelengths the military will end up needing. Ash Carter, a defense secretary in the Obama administration, said in an interview that the Pentagon may be able to transition to more efficient uses of its holdings over time, but also needs to keep an eye on the future. The Pentagon “needs to defend vigorously the parts of the spectrum that it really needs,” he said.

“Because once you give them away,” he said, “you’ll never get them back.”

The mid-band debate heated up last year when some surprising new players came onto the scene: Trump’s 2020 reelection campaign manager Brad Parscale and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich. Both were part of a vocal campaign in favor of a controversial plan to force the Pentagon to share some of its spectrum by assigning a wholesale provider that would offer them to wireless carriers like AT&T on a rolling basis, allowing carriers to use the resource without any dedicated ownership, and subject to the Pentagon and the wholesaler’s control.

The plan was hyped as a way to cut wireless bills for rural America, with a more efficient system for doling out valuable 5G-friendly airwaves. But critics noted it seemed to have one big beneficiary: politically connected telecom firm Rivada Networks, which touted technology for becoming that wholesaler. The global company, whose U.S. offices are near Washington, claims GOP operative Karl Rove as a registered lobbyist and is backed by tech investor Peter Thiel, a prominent supporter of Trump. Gingrich says he has no financial stake in Rivada or other 5G ventures; last year, Parscale also denied having any personal interest..

Although the wireless lobby loves the idea of getting access to military-controlled spectrum, the carriers fought this wholesale plan, saying it put too much control into government hands. The entire FCC united against the prospect, as did prominent lawmakers. Trump shot down the proposal last spring, announcing he preferred to let the free market dictate 5G rollout, siding with his economic adviser Larry Kudlow and FCC chief Ajit Pai.

Gingrich says he most recently spoke to Trump about the issue late last year and came away disappointed in the administration. “Of all of the places I’ve been involved with this president, this is the one in which the Trump model — which is to break through the regulations, move to the lowest cost, fastest implementation system — has been the most effectively resisted by the deep state,” Gringrich said in an interview.

The Pentagon hasn’t budged on giving up its mid-band wavelengths for good, but it has a counteroffer: What if everyone shared? In that case, carriers and equipment makers would use new technologies to “borrow” military wavelengths, using them in defined areas without any dedicated rights to exclusive use.

In September, the Pentagon’s Frederick Moorefield said DOD wants to expand on an initial effort to share airwaves belonging to the U.S. Navy on an unlicensed basis with users that register to do so, an arrangement years in the making and just now coming to fruition. In a hotel near the FCC’s Washington headquarters, the Navy, FCC, Commerce Department and industry officials gathered to celebrate the initial commercial launch of service in the band.

“Don’t let this be the last hurrah,” Moorefield, the acting deputy chief information officer, told the large crowd over breakfast. “Whether we like it or not, more spectrum-sharing is the new normal.”

The FCC, meanwhile, in late June will auction some priority licenses to access these mid-band airwaves held by the Navy after years of tough negotiation involving the Pentagon and other commercial and government players. But so far, the military has not given up much in the way of underlying spectrum holdings.

Even with the sharing plan, defenders of the Pentagon say the military needs to be parsimonious. The Navy “figured out ways to manage that sharing,” said Clancy, who is now vice president for intelligence programs at the MITRE Corporation, a government-funded think tank. If it keeps expanding, however, “You are squishing them into tighter and tighter spaces and constraining their ability to do training missions.”

That sense of a squeeze has contributed to distrust between the commercial sector and the government. It was on display during 2019’s defense bill negotiations, when several lawmakers and wireless industry lobbyists beat back a Pentagon attempt to secure a provision ordering the Defense Department to create a program focused on the sharing of 5G airwaves. Commerce Committee lawmakers in both chambers cried foul at what they saw as an attempt to grab control from civilian overseers at the Commerce Department and the FCC.

Some have another concern about the sharing idea: The Pentagon has tested so-called bidirectional sharing of the spectrum, effectively a trade of shared access to some military airwaves for pieces of the spectrum held by commercial wireless providers now. Some fear the Pentagon’s goal, as Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) alleged during a December hearing, is to “force commercial entities to share their privately licensed spectrum with DOD” as part of these arrangements.

Congress has been sending mixed messages: While it has so far protected civilian control of the spectrum, it also is funneling hundreds of millions of dollars into the Pentagon’s 5G ambitions. Last year, lawmakers gave a new appropriation of $436 million to the Pentagon, which told Congress to expect the funding request to recur in years ahead. The department started issuing requests for proposals late in 2019 aimed at experimenting on wireless spectrum-sharing technology on several U.S. military bases, expected to proceed through 2020.

To critics, this looks like busywork meant to justify the Pentagon’s squatting on valuable airwaves. “The bureaucrats inside the Pentagon don’t want to give up anything,” Gingrich said. “So they’re playing rope-a-dope with very small projects that are totally irrelevant but make it look like they’re doing something.”

With overseas threats from Huawei looming large in the news, there are signs that the Pentagon and its private-sector spectrum rivals are trying to make nice. Pentagon officials have met with wireless carriers, investors and equipment makers like Nokia and Ericsson, with an eye toward developing a broader strategy aimed at global 5G dominance. Defense Secretary Mark Esper convened a 5G-focused dinner with top telecommunications executives on Nov. 25. Undersecretary Ellen Lord said during one event last year that the Pentagon plans “almost a national industrial policy for 5G.”

It’s not clear the wireless lobby would ever support a Pentagon-run industrial policy. But there are also rumblings of change coming from the military itself. The Defense Innovation Board, a Pentagon advisory group made up of leading tech entrepreneurs and academics, issued a report last year that essentially concluded economic and security value of 5G outweighs the risks for the military in parting with at least some of its prime spectrum, and that it could find alternative ways to support those operations. “The status quo of spectrum allocation is unsustainable,” the authors wrote. Congressional appropriators used this report to partly justify granting the Pentagon hundreds of millions for its latest spectrum projects.

The wireless industry is increasingly impatient. “Other countries have gotten ahead of us on mid-band,” one telecom executive told POLITICO, requesting anonymity to speak frankly. “We’re kind of pulling teeth trying to get access to it.”

One thing that may ultimately force the Pentagon’s hand is the growing realization that the military needs a secure 5G wireless network, too — and if overseas companies end up crowding all those mid-band frequencies it wants to use, its options in the field will be very limited. Giving up, or at least sharing, some of its spectrum holdings with American companies may be the only way it can avoid having to rely on a Chinese-run network for some of its global operations.

Steve Kwast, one of the U.S. Air Force’s leading technologists, who retired late last year as a three-star general, said the military is particularly rattled that it may be forced to use mid-band airwaves for 5G on a Chinese network.

“So here comes 5G, where the Chinese look at the spectrum as the sweet spot of all these attributes that people want and their ability to communicate, and they say ‘screw you man, we weren’t around when you wrote these rules,” Kwast said in an interview. “We are going to use that part of the spectrum.’”

Kwast cites a real-world example of this challenge. “If we are operating in the South China Sea, China is already riddled in that component of the electromagnetic spectrum that we have as our sanctuary, and it is going to do everything the military complains about it,” he said. “It is going to affect our ability to command and control because they are already there.”

“The military is going crazy saying, ‘Wait a minute you can’t do that, that’s our sanctuary,’” Kwast added.

The argument that Kwast and others are making is that as much as possible those networks need to be American — and that means sharing the mid-band spectrum with the telecom industry so it can build out such a commercial network. But to do so will likely take high-level leadership from a White House that appears to be, at best, divided on the best way to proceed.

“We’re not talking about a technology challenge. We are talking about a political problem,” Robert Spalding, a retired Air Force brigadier general who recently served on the National Security Council, where he worked on technology policy, said in an interview.

Spalding, who authored a high-profile NSC proposal leaked in early 2018 that contemplated nationalizing 5G, said he left the White House in part because he doesn’t think it is prepared to make the necessary decisions.

“I don’t think it’s going to go well,” he said in an interview. “You know, that’s why, that’s why I left government. I’m focused on private sector solutions that kind of try to disrupt — because otherwise we’re headed into a place where we just give up the lead in science and technology.”

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