US operators are fond of touting their 5G wins, claiming plenty of firsts both before and after the 3GPP non-standalone New Radio (NR) specifications were released in December 2017. But as the time for deployments approaches, it seems increasingly possible government dysfunction could end up costing the US its 5G edge.

Companies including AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile US and Verizon have perpetually been in dialogue with officials at every level of government, but signs of strain began popping up as densification efforts pitted operators against local and federal zoning regulations. Sprint notably struggled with siting delays in 2015 as it sought to deploy more small cells for its 2.5GHz spectrum. Though the operators dutifully chugged on toward 5G, the issue still hadn’t been resolved in 2017 when Verizon pleaded with the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) for help clearing a “minefield” of regulations hindering small cell deployments.

The ongoing struggle prompted Sprint CEO Marcelo Claure to issue a stark warning at Mobile World Congress Americas in September 2017, pointing out the US may lose its first mover advantage if government officials fail to “get their act together once and for all” to streamline the process.

But there has been precious little regulatory progress since then: in fact, US government dysfunction, and the threat it poses to operators, looms as large as ever.

For instance, nearly a year has passed with no action since the FCC opened a proceeding in April 2017 to examine the regulatory impediments to small cell rollouts. On Capitol Hill, some 25 broadband deployment bills, many of which would streamline infrastructure siting regulations, are still awaiting mark-up and recommendation from the House Energy and Commerce Committee. To become law, those bills have to be approved by the committee, as well as both houses of Congress and signed by the President.

While Congress and the White House are currently both dominated by a single party, legislators have still found it difficult to overcome divisions even within their caucus to be productive. Notably, disagreements over immigration issues recently prevented the passage of a routine budget bill, causing a temporary shutdown of government operations in January.

Over at the FCC, chairman Ajit Pai also cast doubt over the future of US spectrum auctions, even as operators issue desperate pleas for the agency to bring high capacity mmWave spectrum to the block. Though the commission continues to open new bands for mobile 5G use, Pai stated new spectrum auctions are on hold indefinitely until the commission works out how to comply with regulations about how upfront payments from bidders are held.

In contrast, South Korea (which has set a commercial rollout date of 2019 and a nationwide deployment goal of 2020), reportedly accelerated its auction timeline and announced it will hold 5G spectrum auctions in the 3.5GHz and 28GHz bands in June – a year earlier than planned.

Operators including Sprint and T-Mobile have tried to find workarounds, signing infrastructure partnerships with cable operators to facilitate small cell deployments and revealing plans to use lower-band spectrum which propagates further for initial 5G deployments. But this one-two punch is set to hit US operators straight in the gut, effectively limiting truly revolutionary 5G deployments to areas where operators already own the necessary spectrum and have been able to secure permits to build out their networks accordingly.

For now, US operators remain at the front of the 5G pack. But as Claure said, unless government officials and regulators get on board, they won’t be for long.

The editorial views expressed in this article are solely those of the author and will not necessarily reflect the views of the GSMA, its Members or Associate Members.