Questions cloud America's next big midband spectrum auction
The FCC is moving forward with plans to conduct another massive midband spectrum auction for 5G in October. The event has taken on a much higher profile following the roughly $80 billion in winning bids that AT&T, Verizon and T-Mobile made in the FCC's midband C-band spectrum auction in February.
However, operators are raising a number of pressing questions about the FCC's planned auction of 100MHz of spectrum between 3.45GHz and 3.55GHz. And the answers to those questions could ultimately determine whether the FCC's next auction is a snoozefest or a blockbuster.
Specifically, the FCC has not yet provided details about how 3.45GHz-3.55GHz auction winners might have to share their winnings with the US military. It's an important issue considering it could affect up to 20% of the US population, according to the CTIA trade association that represents some of the biggest wireless network operators in the country.
"While industry was initially led to believe that unencumbered spectrum [in the 3.45GHz-3.55GHz band] would cover 93% of the US population, recent information provided by the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) significantly alters the scope of ongoing federal operations," explained Tim Donovan of the Competitive Carriers Association (CCA) in recent Congressional testimony. The CCA represents many of the smaller wireless network operators in the US.
"In particular, data that NTIA provided shows that critical population centers – including much of the East Coast and high-density areas on the West Coast – will require coordination with continued operations by the Department of Defense (DoD)," Donovan continued. "Without additional information about DoD's actual needs – based on geography and time – for that spectrum, commercial providers may be unwilling to participate in the auction for this spectrum. They need that information now."
Military usage camouflaged
The DoD currently uses the 3.45GHz-3.55GHz band, and the NTIA is the government agency charged with managing those operations. In 2020, the Trump administration brokered an agreement with the DoD and the NTIA to release the 3.45-3.55GHz band for 5G. The NTIA initially indicated most of that spectrum – all but 7% – would be released for commercial uses, with the military holding on to licenses covering locations like Camp Pendleton in California, the Joint Readiness Training Center in Louisiana, Camp Lejeune in North Carolina and White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico. However, the NTIA recently said that the DoD might want to hold onto more spectrum than the agency initially indicated. The NTIA's early figures now look "overly optimistic," according to T-Mobile.
"For a successful auction, prospective bidders must have access to considerably more information about the cooperative sharing regime [with the DoD] well in advance of the auction so that they can assign accurate valuations to 3.45GHz spectrum," argued Verizon. "At present there remain many unknowns regarding the nature and extent of government operations that will remain in the band."
The NTIA and the DoD have indicated they will release additional details at some point in the future – but with the auction looming in October, the wireless industry is asking for the information sooner rather than later.
"This information will play a vital role in bidders' strategies and decision-making, and the commission should actively work to ensure that NTIA and DoD release these materials as far in advance of the auction as practicable," argued AT&T, which mentioned June as a possible deadline.
While the ebb and flow of federal spectrum allocation may only appeal to government policy wonks, the issue is important to the broader 5G industry, according to the CCA's Donovan.
"This lack of reliable information from the DoD is part of a broader issue ... about the need for a unified and timely approach to federal spectrum management," Donovan argued. He pointed to several spectrum-related disagreements among a variety of US government agencies. For example, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) has spoken out against 5G operations in the 24GHz band; GPS users and others continue to push against Ligado's 5G plans for its L-band spectrum holdings; and the Department of Transportation has objected to the FCC's plans for the 5.9GHz band.
"This haphazard approach to spectrum policy should not happen and must not continue," Donovan said.
He's not alone.
"By statute, the NTIA has 'the responsibility to ensure that the views of the executive branch on telecommunications matters are effectively presented to the [FCC].' In recent years, several federal agencies with spectrum allocations have circumvented this statutory process and argued the importance of their particular use cases directly to the FCC, rather than working through the NTIA as the central repository and manager of federal spectrum," wrote the members of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, including chairman Frank Pallone, in a letter to Evelyn Remaley, the acting assistant secretary of the NTIA.
"It is crucial that the NTIA maintain leadership over all federal spectrum issues," they added.
Indeed, the 3.45GHz-3.55GHz band was apparently the scene of fierce debates within the Trump administration. And US military officials have said they expect to continue retaining a tight grip on spectrum into the future.
How the NTIA and FCC might deal with such issues in the upcoming auction and in potential future spectrum auctions remains to be seen. But given the billions of dollars that Verizon, AT&T and others are spending on midband spectrum for 5G, it's an issue that's important to the wider 5G industry.
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— Mike Dano, Editorial Director, 5G & Mobile Strategies, Light Reading | @mikeddano