With one mid-band spectrum auction completed and a second currently underway and nearing $70 billion in proceeds, 2020 opened the curtains on new mid-band spectrum.
Operators have been craving key mid-band frequencies that provide a sweet spot for capacity and coverage. This year the FCC made 350 megahertz available for licensed commercial use within the shared Citizens Broadband Radio Service (CBRS) 3.5 GHz band and the C-band.
C-band spectrum at 3.7-4.2 GHz, specifically the lower 280 megahertz, was front and center both as the wireless industry kicked off and closed out 2020.
In January, satellite companies using the band pushed for accelerated clearing payments from the would-be winners of a public auction, while legislators made moves to prevent them from receiving a windfall.
Despite blowback, FCC Chairman Ajit Pai was ultimately successful in proposing $9.7 billion to incentivize satellite operators to clear 280 megahertz more quickly to make ready for 5G, in addition to relocation costs. A C-band order was adopted 3-2 in February amid heated debate.
What had been a winding journey for C-band remained a contentious political back and forth, with questions raised about the FCC’s legal authority, concerns over litigation, and some views that the figure was too high since the spectrum wasn’t owned by satellite companies who would’ve been required to clear out either way (although arguably not as quickly).
Operators, eager for mid-band (particularly Verizon and AT&T), were unsurprisingly on board but didn’t always see eye to eye on auction rules. Verizon, for example, wanted limits on the amount of C-band that providers could acquire, citing the vast amount of 2.5 GHz T-Mobile stood to (and ultimately did) obtain through its Sprint merger.
Still, over the summer the FCC approved auction procedures and secured commitments from eligible satellite operators Eutelsat, Intelsat, SES, Star One and Telesat to meet accelerated clearing timelines.
Fast forward to December, and the C-band Auction 107, after starting on the 8th, is already the highest grossing U.S. spectrum auction with $69.83 billion in gross proceeds. Bidding will start up again January 4.
Analysts at MoffettNathanson characterized just how critical the C-band auction is to 5G competition as AT&T and Verizon work to catch up to T-Mobile’s mid-band position and deployment head start thanks to 2.5 GHz.
“Today opens what may be the most important wireless auction of our time. Who ‘wins’ the C-Band auction will shape the competitive dynamics of 5G for a decade,” wrote analysts led by Craig Moffett in early December. “Yes, the stakes really are that high.”
Dish Network also registered as one of 57 qualified bidders in Auction 107, as it works to become a fourth nationwide facilities-based carrier. With large channel sizes and industry-desired power levels C-band is bound to be a key component in 5G deployments.
Timelines call for the first 100 megahertz of licensed C-band to be cleared by December 2021, with the remaining by December 2023.
2020 has laid the groundwork for benefits that likely won’t be seen until the next few years.
The COVID-19 pandemic delayed the much-anticipated auction for CBRS priority access licenses (PALs) in the 3.55-3.65 band by one month. But there was wide interest when Auction 105 kicked off in July and ended with 228 winning bidders who committed a total of $4.58 billion.
Verizon, Dish Network, and T-Mobile scooped up PALs, as did cable companies operating as MVNOs including Charter, Comcast and Cox Communications. AT&T was notably absent.
With lower power levels, smaller channel sizes and a novel coordinated sharing paradigm, CBRS was viewed a bit differently than C-band in terms of how providers will put it to use.
The auction set-up, including county-sized license areas, brought smaller and less traditional players into the mix. While Verizon was the biggest spender at $1.89 billion, accounting for 41% of proceeds, it obtained just 3% of the licenses available. Nearly 70 smaller WISPs won PALs, and WISPA members collectively spent $100.4 million for 3,600 licenses.
Utilities like San Diego Gas and Electric and Southern California Edison each paid top dollar for certain county-sized PALs.
Speaking in December, Verizon CTO Kyle Malady said CBRS deployments had already begun and were mostly outdoors in a few thousand nodes.
“It’s easy to add [CBRS] in, a lot of devices already support it, so for us, it’s an easy way to add some capacity to places that we need to,” Malady said at an investor conference. “You’ll see it mostly on small cells as we deploy it, but you’ll also see it on macros” in more densely populated locations to add capacity.
Licensed PALs can be used alongside the 80 megahertz of CBRS available under General Authorized Access (GAA) and opens up new opportunities to explore LTE and 5G private networks for enterprise, military, education, and others.
LTE-based CBRS deployments happened this year to support mobile network densification, fixed wireless access and neutral host infrastructure as well.
In December, SNS Telecom & IT projected that annual investments in LTE and 5G NR-based CBRS RAN infrastructure will account for more than $300 million by year’s end. That’s expected to surpass $1 billion by 2023 as the pool of CBRS-equipped devices expands further.
2020 also saw the U.S. government and FCC tee up another 100 megahertz of mid-band spectrum, between 3.45-3.55, that service providers could use for 5G. This fall the FCC took steps to get the band ready and hopes to hold an auction in 2021.
While 2020 was a big year for mid-band, it’s just the start – and some groups say more of the key spectrum is still needed.
CTIA last week applauded the work on mid-band in 2020 but stressed that the U.S. needs to effectively double the amount of licensed mid-band spectrum – pointing to other leading nations that are expected to have more than 600 megahertz licensed in the next two years.