If you think of wireless spectrum as a radio dial with a left-to-right list of frequencies running from 87.7FM to 107.9FM, you already understand that multiple broadcasters “share” public airwaves by operating on adjacent frequencies, each with a station-specific government license. In the United States, the FCC’s supposed to control both the airwaves and the licenses, regulating their shared use by old-fashioned radios and modern wireless devices. But this week, an FCC commissioner took a dangerous step by groveling for personal help from President Donald Trump.
Even if you’re not a highly technical person, the FCC’s problem is fairly easy to understand. Wireless devices (such as cellular phones) use radio waves to communicate, and can get exponentially faster for business and consumer data use by using more radio spectrum at once — a solution being used by 5G networks and phones. But each category of devices is only allowed to use radio frequencies that aren’t already allocated to other purposes, and lots of legacy devices have been allocated spectrum. Amongst other things, the FCC guarantees that cellular phones won’t broadcast signals that would interfere with FM radio stations or naval radar systems, and satellite dishes can’t interfere with Wi-Fi routers or home wireless phones.
Despite its broad powers to control the airwaves, the FCC claims to have hit a roadblock that it can’t handle itself: Other federal agencies and departments won’t give up their allocated radio spectrum for 5G, including the one that holds the most ideal mid band spectrum — the Department of Defense. “Simply put,” FCC commissioner Michael O’Rielly said in a letter to Trump this week, “every excuse, delay tactic, and political chit is used to prevent the repurposing of any spectrum.” Consequently, O’Rielly says, the agency faces multiple years of delays in re-farming frequencies for 5G use.
To be clear, there’s nothing wrong with the FCC asking the President of the United States to resolve an inter-agency dispute over the use of limited federal resources. That’s completely normal. But O’Rielly was obsequious to a degree unbecoming of a supposedly independent federal agency. He opened and closed his letter by praising Trump’s “extraordinary leadership” and “exemplary skills,” using the middle to claim that “only you personally, with your unique ability to cut through the bureaucratic stonewalling, can free the necessary spectrum bands to provide our wireless providers the means to succeed.”
If that “only you personally” language sounds familiar, that’s because it echoes Trump’s infamous “I alone can fix it” RNC acceptance speech, which hinted at the sort of dictatorial tactics past U.S. presidents and federal agencies have strenuously avoided. While we look to presidents as leaders, they’re not supposed to be kings, nor possessed of magical abilities. FCC commissioners can ask for their help, but they shouldn’t beg. Unfortunately, government officials and some companies have learned that publicly flattering Trump is key to getting his attention, regardless of the merits of the situation.
There’s probably no point in appealing to Trump on the technical or socioeconomic merits of reallocating spectrum, because they’re complex in ways that Trump doesn’t seem inclined to understand. The upshot there is that continuing to reserve vast swaths of mid band radio frequencies for intermittent governmental use isn’t as beneficial as making the same frequencies available to millions of U.S. citizens. Other governments around the world reached this conclusion some time ago, enabling 5G to launch on mid band 3.5GHz frequencies across Europe and Asia. There’s zero doubt at this point that the U.S. is behind the curve on mid band.
Even so, there’s something unseemly about a federal agency stooping to such brazen public flattery and begging for personal intervention to achieve any outcome. While it would be naive to assume that such measures weren’t used behind the scenes even in pre-Trump administrations, the social harm of normalizing cult of personality tactics outweighs whatever benefits the FCC might hope to achieve by using such an approach.
American consumers deserve access to mid band 5G spectrum — right away. But we should all be concerned if our public servants feel they must grovel to make that happen.