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5G skirmishes at 12GHz may escalate into all-out spectrum war

In one corner stands Dish Network's Charlie Ergen and Michael Dell of Dell Technologies. In the other corner stand AT&T CEO John Stankey and Elon Musk, the billionaire entrepreneur behind companies ranging from SpaceX to Tesla to The Boring Company.

At issue is whether 5G operations should be allowed into the 12GHz band.

According to at least one high-level source involved in the debates, the FCC might make some kind of ruling on the topic as soon as December. A senior FCC official confirmed that the agency is considering allowing 5G in 12GHz, but declined to comment on whether the item would be addressed during the FCC's December meeting.

Based on the increasingly contentious filings on the topic, it certainly appears that the fight over 12GHz is escalating.

"The time has finally come for the commission to issue a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (NPRM)," wrote RS Access this week in a filing to the FCC. Dell's private money management firm backs RS Access, which owns 12GHz licenses and has been pushing for rules allowing 5G operations in the band.

An NPRM by the FCC would signal a formal effort to decide on the matter, potentially sometime next year.

"Given the twin national imperatives of bringing spectrum to its highest and best use while unleashing spectrum for broadband connectivity, issuing a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking will allow debate to move from hollow rhetoric to the types of pragmatic solutions the country needs to accelerate 5G investment and innovation," echoed Dish Network in its own filing. Dish owns substantial 12GHz licenses and is likely hoping to add the spectrum to its planned 5G network at some point in the future.

But AT&T and SpaceX are firmly against the idea of the FCC taking action. Instead, they argue that 5G operations in the band would affect their existing activities in 12GHz (AT&T's DirecTV satellite TV service uses a portion of the band, as does SpaceX's Starlink satellite Internet service).

"The parties urged the commission to deny the MVDDS Petition [a coalition including Dish and RS Access] for rulemaking outright or, at most, to issue a notice of inquiry rather than a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking given the current state of the record in this proceeding," wrote AT&T and SpaceX – along with Kepler Communications, satellite companies Intelsat and SES, and bankrupt OneWeb – in their own filing.

AT&T's opposition to 5G in 12GHz is striking, given the company's support for 5G in virtually every other licensed and unlicensed band.

The issue is important enough that Musk himself recently took a break from his space-faring and autonomous driving activities to call FCC Chairman Ajit Pai about 5G in 12GHz.

Some proponents of 5G in the 12GHz band had hoped the FCC would take the matter up during its November meeting. Instead, the agency's main agenda item during that upcoming meeting will be to free up the 5.9GHz band for unlicensed operations as well as car-to-car communications using the C-V2X standard.

The agency will likely release its agenda for its December meeting shortly after its November meeting.

And the clock is ticking. If Joe Biden wins the US presidency, he will likely install a new FCC chief sometime after taking office in January and it's not clear when or how a Democratic-led FCC might fall on the 12GHz issue.

Thus, the heavyweights involved in the 12GHz proceeding are pulling out all the stops in the hopes they can get the FCC to act on one last contentious piece of spectrum policy before Biden begins his first term or President Trump begins his second. After all, Trump's current FCC chairman, Pai, has not said whether he will stay on at the agency for Trump's second term.

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Mike Dano, Editorial Director, 5G & Mobile Strategies, Light Reading | @mikeddano

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