Can Ajit Pai Split the C-Band Baby for 5G Victory?

Mike Dano
10/29/2019

FCC Chairman Ajit Pai is on the cusp of making a really big decision: how to release C-Band spectrum for 5G.

An estimated $50 billion in spectrum auction revenues -- not to mention the United States' position in the global "race to 5G" -- hinges on what he does.

So the question is, will Pai be able to split the baby?

The phrase "split the baby" refers to the biblical story of King Solomon, wherein two women both claiming to be the mother of a child ask him to decide which is the real mother. In the story, Solomon suggests that he cut the baby in two, with each woman getting half. The real mother reveals herself by begging Solomon to give the baby to her rival in order to let it live.

This story is often used as an example of a wise decision. And Pai certainly needs to employ some wisdom in his pending C-Band decision.

'Get me a sword'
Basically Pai needs to cut between one of two main proposals: The proposal from the C-Band Alliance (CBA) or the proposal from a coalition among Charter, the Competitive Carriers Association (CCA) and ACA Connects.

Much has been happening on the CBA side of the argument in recent days. First, the CBA said it will release 300MHz of C-Band spectrum for 5G, not the 200MHz it previously said it would release. That's good because more spectrum is better for 5G. Further, AT&T, Verizon and U.S. Cellular today said they now support the CBA's proposal in part because it promises to release C-Band spectrum for 5G more quickly. That's also good because those companies are expected to be the big spenders in any C-Band auction.

However, support for the Charter/CCA/ACA alternative also has been hardening. A House hearing on the topic this week essentially played out as a rallying cry for CBA opponents, who made a bunch of different and compelling arguments against the CBA's proposal. For example, they said that the FCC -- not private companies -- should conduct spectrum auctions, and that foreign companies should not profit from the sale of US spectrum to US companies. In fact, ABS CEO James Frownfelter -- an existing, US-based C-Band user who is not represented by the CBA -- essentially promised that he would file a lawsuit if the CBA is allowed to conduct a C-Band spectrum auction without participation from companies like ABS.

Pai has said that he will make a C-Band decision "this fall," although C-Band is not on the FCC's Nov. 19 meeting agenda.

Pai has said that whatever he does on the C-Band will align with four goals:

  • Make "significant" spectrum available for 5G
  • Release spectrum quickly
  • Generate revenue for the US government
  • Protect existing C-Band services

The Trump factor
King Solomon didn't have to worry about Twitter when threatening to cut up babies. Pai does.

As the analysts at New Street Research and others have noted, a tweet about the C-Band from President Trump would undoubtedly factor into Pai's evaluation of the issue. Indeed, Sen. John Kennedy seemed to be fishing for just that when he said earlier this month that the money raised from an FCC-led auction of C-Band spectrum would "solve all of the President's wall problems."

So far Trump has remained silent on the C-Band topic, but the issues involved -- foreign companies, US technology leadership and jobs -- certainly play to his interests. As a result, investors in companies involved in the C-Band are probably keeping a close eye on Twitter until Pai makes his announcement.

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

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