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Get ready for the summer of spectrum squabbling

The FCC is deadlocked between Republicans and Democrats and recently lost its authority to auction spectrum. In the absence of decisiveness, expect bickering.

Mike Dano

March 14, 2023

6 Min Read
Get ready for the summer of spectrum squabbling

Last week, for the first time ever, Congress allowed the FCC's spectrum auction authority to lapse – a development that prevents the agency from auctioning more spectrum to 5G network operators.

At roughly the same time last week, President Joe Biden's Democratic nominee to the FCC, Gigi Sohn, abruptly withdrew from contention without any clear replacement. That leaves the agency deadlocked between two Republicans and two Democrats for the foreseeable future.

For the wireless industry, the political tumult in Washington likely signals a standstill on spectrum policy. That's noteworthy, considering Biden's NTIA is hoping to release a national spectrum strategy this fall.

But, according to some analysts, the gridlock in Washington may not have a huge impact – at least for now.

"The FCC does not have any spectrum teed up to auction and the industry, still digesting the costs of the last several auctions, is in no mood to spend more right away," wrote the financial analysts at New Street Research in a note to investors this weekend.

Figure 1: (Source: Inge Johnsson/Alamy Stock Photo) (Source: Inge Johnsson/Alamy Stock Photo)

Indeed, Verizon, AT&T, T-Mobile and Dish Network have collectively spent around $120 billion on spectrum in recent FCC auctions. And they haven't yet shown any indications that those investments will pay off anytime soon.

However, the fight over spectrum – including for 5G and eventually 6G networks – isn't over. US wireless providers continue to eye additional spectrum in bands ranging from 3GHz to 13GHz.

"We expect that longer-term legislation will emerge in the fall, but the battles over sharing and exclusive use [spectrum licenses] are not close to resolution," wrote the New Street analysts.

They added that they expect Congress to eventually reinstate the FCC's spectrum auction authority and for Biden to name a replacement for Sohn. Anna Gomez, a lawyer with experience at the FCC and NTIA, is one potential nominee, they said.

In the meantime, expect plenty of quarreling among industry lobbyists and government officials as they look to get the upper hand for their constituents. Here's a quick primer on some of the spectrum – and the issues – that will be debated this summer.

3.1GHz-3.45GHz

This band pits the US military and the US wireless industry directly against each other because the US military currently operates radar in the 3.1GHz-3.45GHz band, but the wireless industry wants to get access to the band for 5G.

According to CTIA, the main US wireless industry trade group, policymakers need to release the band for 5G so that the US can stay competitive on the international stage.

"Our global rivals are acting now to get ahead of skyrocketing wireless use by freeing up more spectrum," CTIA's Brad Gillen told a House committee last week. "Today, we have a global deficit of over 370 MHz of midband spectrum compared to our key rivals, which is roughly the size of the 3.45 GHz and C-Band auctions combined. Japan today has over 1100 megahertz assigned, and the United Kingdom almost 800 megahertz."

However, the US Department of Defense (DoD) has said that it will not release the 3.1GHz-3.45GHz band unless it's able to continue to use a portion of the band under a spectrum-sharing scenario.

"Spectrum policy in the years ahead may hit some potholes as the midband spectrum industry wants next is still under the control of the Defense Department, which has its own powers in DC," noted the New Street analysts.

The DoD, for its part, would prefer to release the band in a sharing scenario similar to the one used for the 3.5GHz CBRS band. But the 5G industry – fronted by the CTIA – would rather get exclusive access to the band.

It's not clear which side will win, but the issue will certainly drive much of this summer's spectrum lobbying.

12.7GHz-13.25GHz

Last year FCC Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel flagged the 12.7GHz-13.25GHz spectrum band as her next target for 5G. However, at the time she warned that "repurposing spectrum is not for the faint of heart." Thus, it's unclear when the spectrum band might be released for 5G.

Further, Rosenworcel faces two major obstacles in attempting to move forward: Her party doesn't have a majority at the FCC, and the agency no longer has the authority to auction spectrum.

"It is my hope that the FCC's auction authority is restored quickly so that this important program is once again able to produce results for consumers and the economy," Rosenworcel said in a statement last week after Congress failed to extend the FCC's auction authority for the first time since it was first initiated in 1993.

It's not clear when the FCC might move forward on the 12.7GHz-13.25GHz issue. However, it's worth noting that CTIA's Gillen did not mention the band in his testimony. That may be due to disinterest among big 5G operators in the band – or at least in additional auction expenses.

12.2GHz-12.7GHz band

This lower 12GHz band is at the center of a yearslong debate over whether it should be repurposed for 5G. The band is currently shared among some satellite operators – including SpaceX – but a proposal from Dish Network and others would see it opened to terrestrial operations, including 5G.

The debate has pitted a number of high-profile executives against each other. Dish's Charlie Ergen and Michael Dell, of Dell computers, support new FCC rules that would allow terrestrial 5G operations in the 12.2GHz-12.7GHz band. That's partly because Ergen (via Dish) and Dell (via RS Access) have rights to some of those licenses, and a rule supporting terrestrial applications would make them more valuable.

But SpaceX and other satellite companies argue that the band would suffer from interference if 5G were allowed in.

According to the New Street analysts, "there appears to be an emerging consensus that the [upcoming FCC] order will not in the near-term allow terrestrial mobile use." The analysts argued that a technological analysis by the FCC will ultimately determine the fate of the band, but that the winds in Washington are blowing against companies like Dish that want new rules for terrestrial service.

Other spectrum bands

Other spectrum bands are also under discussion. For example, the CTIA is urging policymakers to release spectrum in the 4.4GHz-4.9GHz and the 7.125GHz-8.4GHz bands.

"It is in our nation's economic and national security interest to identify a pipeline of bands to be auctioned, particularly now that there is no more 5G spectrum set to be made available," argued Gillen, of the CTIA.

Further, early discussions about 6G have centered on spectrum between 7GHz and 20GHz.

However, given the ongoing political turmoil at the FCC and beyond – alongside widening challenges facing US 5G network operators – it's unlikely that any major spectrum decisions will happen anytime soon. And in the absence of decisiveness, expect bickering.

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

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.

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