5G Spectrum on the Way Via C-Band Auction


FCC maps out the airwaves sale to let winners get contiguous blocks

The 280 megahertz of midband spectrum which is intended for 5G and other advanced services has been fully approved to go to auction starting Tuesday, Dec. 8, under a plan that the Federal Communications Commission adopted on Aug. 6. The controversial auction of the 3.7 to 3.98 GHz midband frequencies is expected to generate 5,684 new flexible-use overlay licenses and about $10 billion in payments to spectrum holders.

The new plan envisions procedures to ensure that auction winners receive contiguous spectrum blocks that will enable wide channel bandwidths to support 5G deployment. In the FCC’s partisan 3-2 decision, Democrats Jessica Rosenworcel and Geoffrey Sparks dissented from the process by which the auction plan was implemented.

Chairman Ajit Pai acknowledged the dissent. “That’s why we rejected politically-motivated calls to do literally nothing until Congress passed a law on the subject,” Pai said, noting that Congress has not addressed the issue in the six months since the FCC made plans for the midband auction.

Bidding in Auction 107 (as the C-band auction is designated) will begin on Dec. 8. There will be two clock-phase categories of certain parts of Partial Economic Areas (PEAs) s that are scheduled for the first early clearing deadline in December 2021. The rules also specify upfront payment and minimum opening bid amounts as well as bidding credit caps for rural service providers and small businesses.

“Midband already is providing hundreds of megabits of 5G mobile performance in markets across the country,” commissioner Brendan Carr said, citing the spectrum’s value in new telehealth, remote learning and work-from-home activities. “We can be sure that this midband capacity will help us meet” further demands.

In her partial dissenting statement, Rosenworcel acknowledged that the midband ruling “may prove to be one of the more consequential auctions in this agency’s history” because the spectrum is “uniquely suited for next-generation 5G service.” But she cautioned that this was the first time that the FCC alone determined the value of spectrum, rather than letting “an efficient and effective market” set the price.

“Instead, bids in this auction will be distorted by a nearly $10 billion payment to incumbent satellite operators that was negotiated outside the light of day,” Rosenworcel said. “That means the public foots this $10 billion bill without the traditional tools of accountability that our auctions have relied on in the past.”

“We should have worked with Congress on a more transparent path,” she said.

Some Saw Rushed Process

ACA Connects president and CEO Matthew Polka, whose group represents smaller, independent MSOs, criticized “the rush to get things done” during which the FCC’s Wireless Bureau “wholly discarded the directions of the commission.

“The bureau could have taken another couple of months to get the lump sum amount right without compromising the C-band auction schedule or the accelerated transition deadlines,” Polka said. He said that “hundreds of MVPDs who were relying on the text of the FCC’s order will now be forced to abandon their shovel-ready plans to deploy and use fiber as a satellite replacement.”

Meredith Attwell Baker, president and CEO of CTIA, the wireless industry association, called the decision an “important milestone [toward] American leadership in 5G.”

“Keeping the C-band auction on schedule is critical to making sure we have the midband spectrum we need,” she said, adding that CTIA looks forward “to a successful auction … to bring more midband spectrum to market.” λ

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