Editor's Corner—Next spectrum auction could occur at the perfect time for carriers

FCC Chairman Ajit Pai
FCC Chairman Ajit Pai.
Colin Gibbs Editor's Corner

Congress is considering two pieces of legislation to feed U.S. carriers’ ceaseless appetite for more spectrum in advance of the deployment of 5G technologies and services.

But don’t expect those airwaves to be freed up overnight.

The Senate introduced legislation Tuesday aimed at establishing a “spectrum pipeline” by encouraging the government to make some of its spectrum available for commercial use. The AIRWAVES Act, as it is dubbed, would free up both licensed and unlicensed spectrum and calls for 10% of auction proceeds to be used to fund the buildout of wireless infrastructure in unserved and underserved rural areas.

“It turns 3.7 GHz to 4.2 GHz into licensed spectrum, and it promises something above 6 GHz for unlicensed” use, said Roger Entner of Recon Analytics, who noted the bill’s broad support. “In a rare sign of bipartisanship, both the carrier-industry advocates and Internet advocates such as Public Knowledge support it.”

“This legislation offers innovative ways to avoid a spectrum crunch, pave the way for 5G service, and provide critical resources to rural America to continue rural buildout in unserved and underserved areas throughout Colorado and the country,” said Cory Gardner, R-Colo., who is co-sponsoring the bill with fellow Senator Maggie Hassan, D-N.H. “American companies are at the forefront of technological innovation and making more spectrum available will allow them to continue to develop and deploy cutting-edge technologies.”

RELATED: As incentive auction ends, carriers push for quick access to 600 MHz spectrum

Meanwhile, the Senate recently passed the Mobile Now Act, which was initially introduced in 2015 but had languished despite bipartisan support, and which also prioritizes mid-band spectrum. Initially designed to meet the Obama Administration’s declared plan to repurpose 500 MHz of government spectrum for commercial wireless broadband use, the bill mandates that at least 255 MHz of airwaves below 6 GHz be allocated for wireless mobile and fixed broadband use by the end of 2020, and requires a study examining the reallocation of six specific bands above 24 GHz.

CTIA CEO Meredith Attwell Baker applaud the Senate’s passage of the legislation, saying in a prepared statement that it “takes much needed steps to maintain a strong spectrum pipeline for wireless consumers and businesses. With the reliance on mobile services skyrocketing, the availability and timely deployment of spectrum needs to keep pace to maintain economic growth and U.S. leadership in a rapidly approaching 5G world,” she added.

The Mobile Now Act still has a long way to go, of course – it must still get through the House before it can be signed by President Trump – and ultimate passage is certainly not a done deal. And while the AIRWAVES Act doesn’t appear to face much opposition, it will take time for legislators to hammer out the details.

Carriers’ spectrum holdings seem ample—for now

But while carriers will forever clamor for more airwaves, they appear generally well positioned to meet the needs of their customers for at least the near future, Entner observed. T-Mobile is hastily deploying services on the sizable chunk of 600 MHz it won during the recent incentive auction; Sprint’s large portfolio of 2.5 GHz licenses is largely untapped; AT&T garnered something of a spectrum windfall when it won the FirstNet contract; and Verizon continues to refarm older spectrum as its customers gradually move onto newer bands.

It’s too early even to speculate about exactly when the FCC’s next spectrum auction might occur, which bands may be up for grabs, and—of course—how much money that event might raise. The recent auction of 600 MHz spectrum saw bidders commit nearly $20 billion, but the event was seen as a disappointment by some in the industry who noted early predictions from analysts that it could generate $60 billion or more. Wireless network operators may not feel an urgent need for more spectrum now, and they likely wouldn’t be inclined to spend vast sums anyway as they focus instead on investing in preparing for 5G.

But the next spectrum auction could occur just as operators once again feel pressed to acquire more airwaves to meet demand. So it’s possible the next auction becomes the “spectrum extravaganza” former FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler had hoped the latest auction would become. — Colin | @colin_gibbs