Congress needs to act on wireless spectrum sales

As the end of the 2022 Lame Duck session approaches, Congress once again faces a laundry list of unpassed legislation. On the list of “must pass” legislation is funding the federal government past its December 16th deadline. To mitigate the unnecessary spending that will inevitably pack the budget bill, Congress should also include some revenue-raising measures. Specifically, Congress should continue to allow the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to auction off wireless spectrum which raises revenue and encourages innovation in the development of 5G wireless technology.   

Unlike most actions taken by the federal government, spectrum auctions run by the FCC are a profitable venture. All wireless spectrum -- the wavelength that allows wireless technologies like satellites, radio, and cell phones to work -- is owned by the federal government. Companies can only acquire and utilize spectrum by bidding for it against other companies. The recent auction of the “C-band” spectrum brought in just over $81 billion dollars in revenue to the federal government.

The federal government currently sits on 12 times more spectrum than is commercially available, and most of it is severely underutilized. Take for example the 5.9 GHz spectrum which is currently under the purview of the Department of Transportation. In all the time the department has had access to this spectrum, it has supposedly been developing technology to allow vehicles to communicate with each other to avoid accidents. It has been over two decades, and the development of this wireless communication technology remains essentially nil. Instead, innovation in preventing vehicle collisions has come from vehicle manufacturers like Tesla. Such wide swaths of spectrum like the 5.9 GHz spectrum are too valuable to sit idle.

Without congressional reauthorization, however, the ability of the FCC to continue to auction spectrum will expire on December 16th, leaving a source of revenue untapped and America's wireless industry without the resources it needs to continue to innovate. This means that along with a higher federal deficit, many Americans will have to wait longer for the latest smartphone to deliver 5G speeds, especially in rural areas.

Earlier this year, the House of Representatives attempted to address this issue in a responsible and timely manner by passing the Spectrum Innovation Act along bipartisan lines. This legislation would have extended the ability of the FCC to continue to auction spectrum for an additional 18 months. Equally important, the legislation would have also created a “spectrum pipeline” which would have looked for unused or underutilized spectrum that could further be auctioned off to the private sector.

Unfortunately, the legislation has languished in the Senate over disagreements on exactly how the funding generated from the spectrum auctions should be spent and the creation of the spectrum pipeline. As a result, the legislation is nowhere close to moving through the process of becoming law. 

Given the biannual congressional tradition of throwing every unrelated must-pass piece of legislation into an omnibus spending package, there is no reason to omit the Spectrum Innovation Act. Unlike most provisions, the Spectrum Innovation Act will shrink the size of government by reducing its spectrum holding, provide much-needed revenue at a time of exploding national debt, and increase American investment and innovation.

Both political parties should be able to agree on that.  

Eric Peterson is a contributor to Young Voices based out of New Orleans.

Image: OpenClipArt

If you experience technical problems, please write to