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Private 5G Takes a Wild Turn with DoD


Image: AndSus -
While the nascent U.S. market for private 5G networks has been inching forward, the U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) recently circulated a proposal to build a private federal 5G wireless network to be operated by one of the major wireless operators in some type of public-private partnership. The new twist is that DoD wants to utilize the radio spectrum that it currently controls. Unfortunately, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) was planning to auction off part of that spectrum (a mid-band slice around 3.45 GHz) by late next year.
The idea of allowing enterprise customers and others to build their own private 5G (many initially “LTE”) networks has been fueled by the recent availability of Citizen Band Radio Services (CBRS) radio spectrum in the 3.5-GHz band. However, the DoD has historically been allocated vast spans (estimated at 450 MHz) of radio spectrum with nationwide licenses to support its various radar systems as well as wireless voice, data, and text communications; weapons systems; and a myriad of command-and-control applications. A portion of the CBRS allocation (i.e. 3.5 to 3.65 GHz) is actually shared with existing naval radar systems.
The DoD aims to maintain control over the spectrum it already “owns” and reallocate some portion of that to build (more specifically, have some big carrier build) a private 5G network. The twist is that DoD would pay for all or part of the private network by allowing the carrier to send some amount of their public network traffic over those DoD radio channels.
It All Starts with a Request for Information
The first hint that something was afoot came in September when DoD issued a request for information (RFI) on Dynamic Spectrum Sharing (DSS). DSS is a capability in the 3GPP cellular standards to ease migration from 4G to 5G. Traditionally, as the carriers moved from one generation of cellular technology to the next, they manually “refarmed” the spectrum from the older technology to the new as more customers bought next-generation handsets. The inability to transition at a quick pace led to channels languishing until the change was complete. That also resulted in a poorer experience for folks who bought the new phones.
DSS allows carriers to y reallocate radio channels back and forth between 4G and 5G users dynamically, ensuring they get the most use out of their expensive radio channels regardless of what type of users they need to support at that moment. It appears the key question in the DoD’s RFI would be whether or not DSS would allow channels to be switched between a private 5G service and carrying a carrier’s public network traffic.
Haven’t I Heard This Before?
FirstNet is just such a hybrid public-private initiative, providing cellular voice/data/text/push-to-talk (PTT) capabilities specifically to first responders and other entities in the public safety community (e.g., hospitals, ambulance services, public utilities, etc.). The DoD is apparently trying to build on FirstNet’s model, although the specific network capabilities they’re looking to provide are still up in the air.
FirstNet was created in the wake of 9/11 when the U.S. government looked to address deficiencies in wireless communications among first responders. With the Middle Class Tax Relief and Job Creation Act of 2012, Congress created the First Responder Network Authority (FRNA) to build and maintain an interoperable nationwide public safety broadband network (NPSBN).
From the start, the plan was to contract one carrier to build and maintain the network. One of the big “sweeteners” in the deal was Band 14. Band 14 was a very valuable 10 MHz (5 MHz in/5 MHz out) radio license in the 700-MHz band with nationwide coverage. The lower-frequency (Sub-1 GHz) bands are attractive both for low loss (translates into “greater transmission range”) and their ability to penetrate walls to provide indoor coverage. That Band 14 channel, initially called the Upper D Block, was designated when the spectrum was first auctioned in the FCC’s Auction 73 back in 2008.
In March 2017, FRNA awarded the FirstNet network contract to AT&T, which received $7 billion along with exclusive use of Band 14. In turn, AT&T pledged to invest $40 billion of its money in the network over the 25-year life of the contract.
What’s most interesting to non-public safety people is that many of the most powerful capabilities already developed for cellular networks are getting their first field test in FirstNet. What allows FirstNet to share its Band 14 capacity with public network traffic is the network’s ability to enforce priority and preemption.
In normal operation, the Band 14 channels operate as part of AT&T’s overall network. However, the network recognizes FirstNet users through their SIM cards and can give their calls and data transmissions priority access to those Band 14 channels. This is essentially the same idea as a multiprotocol label switching (MPLS) network prioritizing certain classes of traffic over others. Cellular VoIP capabilities like Voice over LTE (VoLTE) do operate on services with quality of service (QoS) capability, but the idea of prioritizing selected data traffic is still pretty new to the cellular world.
Importantly, in the event of a large-scale emergency, Band 14 access can be dedicated to FirstNet users, effectively pre-empting access to that spectrum to public safety users exclusively. Public network traffic is still carried, but not on that Band 14 capacity.
How Similar Is the DoD Idea?
FirstNet has been in operation for several years and is growing at a healthy rate, with over 14,000 public safety agencies signed-up and 1.7 million network connections as of October. While we can pretty much tell you what FirstNet does, the DoD proposal is still in the planning stages. It’s highly probable, however, that the feds will be looking for many of the same capabilities; congressional action may be required to advance under the proposed terms.
The big issue is: Are those allocated radio channels “owned” by the DoD, which in turn can do with them as they please? Up until now, the FCC has “managed” radio frequencies in the U.S. In that capacity, the agency has reallocated major parts of the spectrum, opened up parts for unlicensed operation, sold licenses to cellular operators for tens of billions of dollars, and has effectively ridden herd over the available radio spectrum in conjunction with the international radio authorities at the International Telecommunication Union.
It’s sufficient to say that the DoD proclaiming “what’s mine is mine” concerning its allocated spectrum amounts to a major power grab, and that’s always an issue when government entities are involved — not to mention the potential loss of auction proceeds to the U.S. government if the FCC is barred from selling them. Craig Moffett, senior research analyst of MoffettNathanson, a telecom and media research firm, estimates the whole of DoD’s spectrum holdings could fetch as much as $100 billion at auction.
In response, representatives from both sides of the aisle, along with industry heavyweights like John Stankey, AT&T CEO, have been lobbying on behalf of the FCC’s authority over spectrum policy. In the most recent turn of events, Dish Networks has submitted a list of suggestions for the DoD under the guise that its non-existent cellular network could meet many of the criteria that the military is considering. The provider is also purportedly building a fourth nationwide 5G network based on an agreement from the T-Mobile Sprint acquisition. Too bad non-existent networks only protect against non-existent threats, and ours are real.
What Happens Now?
The idea of dedicated communications networks for the federal government dates back to the first Federal Telephone System (FTS), which was deployed following the Cuban Missile Crisis. During those tense days in October 1962, the U.S. government found that it couldn’t communicate over the public telephone network while everyone else was calling friends and family to say “goodbye” (no joke).
National defense requires the DoD to have access to wireless systems in order to defend and protect the country. But the question is, does it still require the amounts allocated decades ago? The efficiency of our wireless technologies, like those in 5G, have improved by leaps and bounds.
The Band 14 spectrum that powers FirstNet was pre-authorized for public safety in the FCC auction, but no such provision was made for the federal government. It should come as no surprise that the General Services Administration (GSA), the purchasing arm of the federal government, is the cellular carriers’ single largest customer in the country. So, if “scale” is a primary justification for private networks, the feds have that box checked.
The established carriers have been lobbying hard against the DoD position and apparently favor keeping the spectrum auction process pretty much as-is. However, if they listen to the customer (DoD) and determine there is a real benefit to gain, some type of FirstNet-like partnership might well be in order — at least for some portion of that spectrum. In any event, only one body can be in charge of managing the radio spectrum, and there doesn’t seem to be any reason to yank that highly technical task away from the FCC.
The entire approach of selling off access to essential resources for a one-time payment is a fundamentally bad idea. Why isn’t the government leasing access to these channels like they do with mineral rights on government lands? Not only is the government cut out of a potential ongoing revenue stream, but this valuable spectrum resource is now essentially held prisoner by the owners. If history is any guide, the objective of those owners will be to get the maximum number of eggs out of their golden goose.
I’ve been reading Tim Wu’s book, The Master Switch: The Rise And Fall Of Information Empires. It describes in detail how information industries have been hidebound by competition-defeating deals that become major obstacles to the adoption of new and better technologies. Suffice it to say that large vested interest and regulatory complicity (often from the FCC) have often been insurmountable obstacles for technical visionaries.
Hopefully, the DoD will get its private network (if it needs one). Looking toward the future of the wireless business, however, the mechanisms are in place to maintain an unhealthy status quo where the vast swaths of the most valuable spectrum are controlled by entrenched carriers, and the price of admission to the game is measured in tens of billions of dollars. The unlicensed spectrum space may be the only place where the real innovators will be able to get a showing.