Carriers continue to evaluate the 3.45 GHz band

5G
T-Mobile has suggested moving the auction timeline back from October would give bidders time to evaluate the impact of incumbent operations. (Getty Images)

The Federal Communications Commission is looking to auction 100-megahertz of spectrum in the 3.45-3.55 GHz range as early as October, and major carriers appear to be cautious as they continue to evaluate the band.

Over the last week executives at AT&T, T-Mobile and Verizon have participated in various investor conferences and each fielded questions regarding the opportunity for additional spectrum including at Auction 110. However, none took a firm stance, with some citing technical issues and the need for more information.  

“I honestly think there’s still a lot to learn,” said T-Mobile President of Technology Neville Ray about the 3.45-3.55 GHz band, during the UBS Future 5G Forum on June 4.  He added that it’s a very different auction than the recent blockbuster C-band, which offered 280-megahertz in total and generated more than $81 billion.  

Auction 110, meanwhile, involves 100-MHz of spectrum in total, divided into ten 10-megahertz blocks licensed by partial economic areas (PEAs) for a total of 4,060 flexible-use licenses. Ray noted that no single winner can come away with more than 40-megahertz, and that with 10 MHz channels there are a lot of different combinations that could arise.

RELATED: FCC tees up 3.45 GHz for mid-band 5G spectrum auction later this year

Notably the mid-band spectrum sits right nearby the 3.7-3.98 GHz C-band and shared 3.5 GHz Citizens Broadband Radio Service (CBRS), but also requires coordination with certain existing federal military operations.

To that end, Ray said another piece “we’re all looking at, and we’re waiting on bated breath to be honest, is a lot more information from the DoD” as the incumbent user.

Directed by Congress, the NTIA, DoD, and FCC have been working to quickly open the airwaves to commercial users and hold an auction this year. Still, Ray said that existing federal users have “highlighted concerns on almost 60 million pops of the country, where there are interference concerns.”

“A lot more information is going to get shared on that we hope, as we move through the next…six to eight weeks,” he said last week. “And that will help us all understand how and where this spectrum is important and the opportunity. So more to come there. We’ll watch that one and we’ll learn a lot more I hope as we go through the summer.”

In addition to newly acquired C-band, T-Mobile has a trove of 2.5 GHz from Sprint it’s moved to deploy – with an upcoming auction for additional 2.5 GHz in the works.  

Ray’s comments came two days after the NTIA and FCC released a June 2 joint public notice (PDF) regarding coordination procedures in the 3.45-3.55 GHz band for potential bidders, and one day after NTIA released transition plans and additional data provided by the DoD.  

To enable commercial services at while still allowing federal users to operate in certain areas as needed, the NTIA and Department of Defense previously identified 33 Cooperative Planning Areas (CPAs), as well as Periodic Use Areas (PUAs), where new licensees must coordinate with federal incumbents for use of the band.

RELATED: U.S. to free up 100 MHz of mid-band spectrum for 5G

As noted by RCR Wireless, coordination has to occur across the full 100-megahertz in all but two of these areas.

In reply comments filed by AT&T last month related to a waiver petition from Lockheed Martin, the carrier said CPAs will already limit 5G deployments in a number of PEAs “covering approximately 22% of the population.” PUAs together with CPAs impact approximately 120 PEAs that would be up for auction, T-Mobile said in comments (PDF) filed April 29.

On June 1, T-Mobile legislative and government affairs executives Michele Thomas and Paula Timmons met with FCC Commissioner Nathan Simington and staff to discuss items including Auction 110. An ex parte filing (PDF) shows they expressed a similar sentiment to Ray’s, regarding the need for more information “for bidders to meaningfully assess the ability to use and, therefore, bid on the spectrum.”

Even once the NTIA and DoD made data showing exactly where, how long, and under what conditions federal use of the spectrum will continue to be needed, T-Mobile said bidders would need time to properly analyze the data and suggested pushing the auction timeline to later in 2021.

“Moving the start of the auction to later in the year would provide much-needed time for potential bidders to evaluate the impact of incumbent operations and would result in greater auction participation, particularly among smaller providers that may not have the resources to quickly analyze NTIA and DoD-provided information,” the filing states.   

RELATED: FCC’s Rosenworcel circulates draft order on 3.45-3.55 GHz

Speaking last week at the Bernstein Strategic Decisions conference, AT&T Communications CEO Jeff McElfresh skirted 3.45 GHz directly, preferring to focus on upcoming deployments of the first batch of C-band spectrum available later this year.

“We always take a look at spectrum,” McElfresh said on June 2, pointing to the importance of mid-band as providing a compromise of coverage and distance, coupled with bandwidth to offer fast speeds.

He noted spectrum available at Auction 110 sits near C-band and shares a lot of the same characteristics.

“And so I would image, as an engineer, you view that as attractive as the DoD or the C-band spectrum that was auctioned” recently. “Having said that, Auction 110 means there’s been 110 auctions” and he expects there will be more in the future.

“What’s more important is the work that’s being done now to prepare the wireless network itself to receive the first tranche of spectrum that we secured in the C-band auction, roughly 40 megahertz, which we expect to light up towards the end of December, when that spectrum becomes available,” McElfresh said, according to a transcript.  

Verizon, the biggest spender at the C-band auction, also cited the need for more evaluation of the 3.45-3.55 GHz band.

Speaking Monday at a Wells Fargo investor conference, Verizon CTO Kyle Malady said he didn’t have a viewpoint at the moment on the spectrum and potentially pairing it with C-band.

“We’re evaluating it because there are some…issues with that band,” he said, noting it’s just been made available and that Verizon’s been exploring it with partners. “We’re still evaluating, trying to understand what the technical issues may be with that band, so I wouldn’t want to scare you one way or the other while we’re trying to finish our evaluation on it.”