The satellite companies that are currently using vast stretches of midband spectrum in the US for TV services face challenges to releasing some of that spectrum for 5G. Despite increasingly heated debate around the issue, several FCC commissioners are promising that a resolution on the topic is imminent.
Further clouding the issue are indications that US spectrum policy is becoming increasingly messy and uncoordinated, as government entities like the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) struggle to hold onto spectrum that Trump administration officials, wireless carriers, infrastructure vendors, entrepreneurs and others want to use for 5G.
Perhaps the most important recent development is the release of a new midband spectrum proposal from a coalition of small wireless carriers and independent cable and telco operators, and headlined by cable giant Charter Communications. The coalition is urging the FCC to release 370 MHz of spectrum in the so-called "C-Band" for 5G.
"The C-Band at 3.7-4.2GHz represents a critical opportunity to unleash mid-band spectrum for next generation wireless services," wrote Charter, the Competitive Carriers Association (CCA) and the ACA Connects in their new proposal to the FCC. CCA represents Sprint, T-Mobile and many of the smaller wireless network operators in the US, while ACA represents some of the smaller and independent cable and telco operators. Charter is the nation's second largest cable operator behind Comcast and a company increasingly eyeing wireless operations.
The C-Band -- a strip of spectrum licenses totaling around 500MHz -- is currently used by satellite and other companies, mainly for video transmissions. A group of satellite companies led by Luxembourg-based SES and Intelsat has banded together under the C-Band Alliance (CBA) to sell around 200MHz of that spectrum to mobile network operators for 5G. Last month the group laid out a detailed plan to auction that spectrum over an 18-36 month timeline. A CBA spokesperson did not provide an official response to the new C-Band proposal from Charter, CCA and ACA, but said that the proposal does not address many of the outstanding issues in the debate.
Nonetheless, the 5G industry clearly wants more midband spectrum. Right now.
For example, since late last year, T-Mobile has been pushing a proposal that calls for the FCC to take ownership of the entire C-Band and auction at least 300MHz of it to wireless network operators and other 5G players.
But even 300MHz isn't enough. T-Mobile recently found that it would cost up to $1.42 billion to free up the entire 500MHz in the C-Band for 5G. That's the amount of money it would take to run fiber to every single "Earth station" that currently uses C-Band spectrum to deliver cable, satellite and broadcast TV to Americans around the country. Earth stations are the ground-based receivers for satellite companies' video transmissions. A $1.42 billion price tag for that fiber buildout makes sense considering the full 500MHz of the C-Band could garner roughly $60 billion in a 5G spectrum auction.
T-Mobile isn't alone in its desire for C-Band spectrum for 5G.
Hans Vestberg, the CEO of Verizon, recently met with FCC Chairman Ajit Pai to encourage him to "move forward quickly to make spectrum in the 3.7 to 4.2GHz band available and to get a portion of this currently underutilized spectrum in the hands of 5G providers who stand ready to deploy," Verizon wrote of Vestberg's meeting in an FCC filing. Similarly, AT&T officials recently "urged the Commission to expeditiously resolve the C-Band proceeding and make that critical mid-band spectrum available for rapid broadband deployment," according to an AT&T filing with the FCC.
However, neither AT&T nor Verizon has publicly picked a side in the C-Band debate.
The number of C-Band proposals is only growing. Just today, the Wireless Internet Service Provider Association (WISPA) highlighted a study geared toward convincing the FCC to implement a spectrum-sharing design in the C-Band. The study -- sponsored by WISPA, Google and Microsoft -- found that some C-Band Earth stations currently enjoy "exclusion zones" the size of West Virginia. Such zones are intended to prevent interference to operations in the C-Band, but WISPA and Google officials argued that spectrum in those zones should instead be shared with wireless internet service providers. Doing so, they argued, could bring internet services to around 80 million Americans, mostly in rural areas, and wouldn't affect existing C-Band operations. Google officials said the spectrum-sharing plan could be implemented "almost literally tomorrow."
The reason AT&T, Verizon and others want the FCC to release C-Band spectrum for 5G is simple: The C-Band underused right now, and it's perfect for 5G. Midband spectrum like the C-Band strikes a balance between coverage and capacity, unlike low band spectrum (which is good for coverage but not capacity) and high-band spectrum (which is good for capacity but not coverage). And midband spectrum for 5G is a big deal because the US needs to maintain a leading position in the global technological marketplace, according to voices stretching from the Pentagon to Congress to the White House.
It's up to the five-member FCC to decide exactly how to release midband spectrum for 5G. The agency is currently looking at releasing the C-Band as well as the 3.5GHz CBRS band and the 2.5GHz band for 5G. For the C-Band specifically, some commissioners are hinting that the agency could make a decision soon.
"Judging by the record and recent filings, we are seeing a picture of consensus growing around an auction, with the specific details of how that would work still being worked out," FCC Commissioner Michael O'Rielly said in a statement to Light Reading. "Moreover, all open issues remain completely resolvable. Given this band’s importance, the Commission needs to get this spectrum in the marketplace as soon as possible. I have to defer to the Chairman on timing questions related to any item."
O'Rielly is one of the three Republican commissioners on the FCC and has been tasked by Pai to take the lead on the C-Band issue. Other commissioners have echoed O'Rielly's comments on the C-Band.
Spectrum vs bureaucracy
Although O'Rielly, Pai and the rest of the FCC's commissioners have acknowledged the chorus of demands for spectrum for 5G, they may be moving with some hesitancy. For example, NOAA recently warned that operations in the 24GHz band could affect weather forecasts -- that's a surprise considering the FCC has already completed an auction of that spectrum to the likes of AT&T, T-Mobile and U.S. Cellular. Typically such interference concerns are addressed well ahead of any auction.
According to FCC officials, the problem lies in part with the NTIA, part of the Department of Commerce. The NTIA is the government agency in charge of handling government usage of spectrum. The NTIA is supposed to work with the FCC to coordinate spectrum usage between commercial and government needs, but NTIA Chairman David Redl unexpectedly resigned in May. Law360 reported left in part due to the difficulties he faced in trying to mollify existing government spectrum users while also releasing spectrum for commercial 5G services, per President Trump's order last year.
Indeed, the friction between the FCC and the NTIA spilled into public view in FCC Chairman Pai's recent hearing at the Senate.
"Part of the reason we're frustrated -- and I'm personally frustrated and spending a long time on this issue -- is that the Department of Commerce has been blocking our efforts at every single turn," Pai said, according to Law360. "The situation frankly has gotten worse since the head of NTIA, David Redl, resigned."
"We've not ever seen these sort of almost-public disagreements within an administration over how to handle spectrum policy," Scott Wallsten, president of the Technology Policy Institute told Law360.