No end in sight for 5G spectrum squabbling

A fight in Washington, DC, over the future of US spectrum management is paralyzing movement on the topic in 5G. As a result, players in the wireless industry may look elsewhere for spectrum.

Mike Dano, Editorial Director, 5G & Mobile Strategies

June 20, 2024

5 Min Read
US congress building in Washington DC
(Source: Gang Liu/Alamy Stock Photo)

It looks like Congress will remain deadlocked over how to release spectrum for 5G. And that situation could push industry players to other, secondary spectrum sources.

"This is a case where nobody really wins and everyone is unhappy," wrote Blair Levin, a policy adviser to New Street Research and a former high-level FCC official, in a note to investors Tuesday regarding ongoing spectrum negotiations in Congress.

However: "That unhappiness is unlikely to translate to legislation in the near-term," he added.

At issue is legislation that could potentially reinstate the FCC's auction authority, which has been missing for more than a year. It could also pave the way for commercial operations – including 5G – in the valuable lower 3GHz band.

The legislation – pushed by Senate Commerce Committee Chair Maria Cantwell, a Democrat from Washington – at one point appeared to have generated a landmark agreement between the Biden administration's Commerce and Defense departments. But Cantwell's bill stands in opposition to other legislation backed by Senate Commerce Committee Ranking Member Ted Cruz, a Texas Republican, and John Thune, a Republican from South Dakota.

According to Levin, that stalemate between Democrats and Republicans appears poised to scuttle movement on 5G spectrum until potentially after the November presidential elections. 

"While spectrum has historically been a bipartisan issue, the differences between the Cantwell effort and the Cruz/Thune bill demonstrate a difference in approach that sets the stage for further battles down the road," Levin wrote this week. "The current stalemate is likely to continue until there is either a technological answer or a political compromise."

The issue is critical for 5G network operators hoping for more spectrum that would add speed and capacity to their smartphone and fixed wireless offerings. It's also important to a broad ecosystem of 5G vendors hoping to supply the equipment necessary to put new spectrum into use.

The lower 3GHz

The 5G industry has been eyeing spectrum in the lower 3GHz band – currently used by the US military – for years. However, US military officials have generally resisted calls for the Department of Defense (DoD) to release any spectrum in the band for commercial operations. Instead, they favor spectrum-sharing scenarios.

Last week, officials from the Commerce Department, the DoD and the Joint Chiefs of Staff reportedly reached an agreement on how Cantwell's legislation might handle spectrum management in the US. That raised hopes that Congress might find a way forward.

But that tenuous path appears to have collapsed amid political recriminations: Cruz, for example, reportedly said that Democrats want to help "illegal aliens," "antisemitic universities" and "mega-corporations with no strings attached."

That would appear to leave the FCC without the auction authority it needs to issue spectrum to companies including 5G network operators. And it also appears to cool any possibility that the DoD will release any spectrum, whether that's through a sharing scenario or through an exclusive-use scenario, as favored by the 5G industry.

Secondary sources

The situation could push wireless network operators like T-Mobile, AT&T and Verizon to other sources of spectrum.

Already T-Mobile has proposed a $4.4 billion purchase of UScellular's spectrum and customers. However, that purchase could bring T-Mobile's total spectrum holding in some locations beyond the FCC's "spectrum screen."

The FCC first introduced its spectrum screen in 2004 in order to prevent wireless network operators from gobbling up all the market's available spectrum, thereby blocking rivals from acquiring it. The screen is generally triggered when any one company acquires more than one-third of the total suitable and available spectrum for commercial services in a given market.

It might be T-Mobile that frees up more spectrum for AT&T or Verizon. Specifically, Dish Network has indicated it won't buy a 13.5MHz chunk of spectrum in the 800MHz band from T-Mobile. That paves the way for T-Mobile to auction that spectrum. However, whoever buys that spectrum would have to pay at least $3.6 billion, and T-Mobile would need consent from the Department of Justice to sell it to AT&T or Verizon.

Another source of spectrum might come from Dish Network itself. The company has mostly given up on pursuing around $3.3 billion worth of AWS-3 spectrum. That could potentially pave the way for the FCC to re-auction the spectrum – if the agency were to regain its auction authority.

But there are still other sources of spectrum. For example, NextNav is seeking federal approvals to release spectrum between 902MHz and 928MHz for 5G operations. Separately, the merger between SES and Intelsat could free up to 100MHz of C-band spectrum at some point in the future. And Ligado Networks has long suggested that its contested L-band spectrum holdings – which sit in the 1525-1660.5MHz range – could be used for 5G.

And that doesn't even cover other spectrum bands under ongoing federal review, from 7GHz to 12GHz.

To be clear though, most such spectrum holdings are either too meager to generate much interest, or they don't have the propagation characteristics of more valuable midband spectrum.

What happens next is anyone's guess.

About the Author(s)

Mike Dano

Editorial Director, 5G & Mobile Strategies, Light Reading

Mike Dano is Light Reading's Editorial Director, 5G & Mobile Strategies. Mike can be reached at [email protected], @mikeddano or on LinkedIn.

Based in Denver, Mike has covered the wireless industry as a journalist for almost two decades, first at RCR Wireless News and then at FierceWireless and recalls once writing a story about the transition from black and white to color screens on cell phones.

Subscribe and receive the latest news from the industry.
Join 62,000+ members. Yes it's completely free.

You May Also Like