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

5G space globe
Acting Chairwoman Rosenworcel has often talked about the need for the U.S. to make more mid-band spectrum available for 5G. (Getty Images)

FCC Acting Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel aims to make some moves on the 5G mid-band spectrum front, circulating a draft order that would make 100 megahertz of spectrum in the 3.45-3.55 GHz band available for auction and 5G deployment. The commission is to vote on the proposal at its March 17 meeting.

It’s not as if it’s coming out of the blue. Congress passed the Beat CHINA for 5G Act of 2020, mandating that the FCC revise the 3.45-3.55 GHz band and conduct an auction in 2021. Still, it shows that things aren’t standing still even though the commission has no majority, with two Democrats and two Republicans.

Rosenworcel has long advocated for the FCC to unleash more mid-band spectrum, citing how other countries were quicker to release mid-band spectrum for 5G. While the U.S. released a bounty of millimeter wave spectrum for 5G, it took longer to make the Citizens Broadband Radio Service (CBRS) and C-band spectrum available at auction, for various reasons.

RELATED: WIA chief shares concerns about C-band’s $80B price tag

According to the FCC, the proposed new rules, if adopted, would allocate the 3.45-3.55 GHz spectrum band for flexible-use service and establish a framework for coordination of non-federal and federal use. It would also complete the relocation of non-federal radiolocation operators to the 2.9-3.0 GHz band and the sunset of amateur use in the 3.3-3.5 GHz band.

FCC Commissioner Brendan Carr, a Republican, signaled he’s generally on board with the proposal. “I am proud of the legwork the FCC and our partners across the federal government have put in to open up this 100 MHz of mid-band spectrum, and I am pleased that the Commission will now vote on the steps needed to auction off these airwaves this year,” he said in a statement. “I look forward to reviewing the draft decision and working with my colleagues to ensure that it maximizes opportunities for 5G in the U.S., including by authorizing full power commercial operations.”

Divided stakeholders

Rosenworcel also circulated a proposed Public Notice seeking comment on procedures for the 3.45-3.55 GHz auction, dubbed Auction 110, in which bidding could begin in early October 2021. Details of the notice will be published Wednesday, but dueling interests already have been telling the FCC how they’d like to see the auction structured.

CTIA, which represents wireless carriers, cheered the FCC’s proposal to auction the spectrum. “Making more mid-band spectrum available for 5G services will boost wireless innovation and deployment, fueling our 5G Economy and helping close the digital divide,” said CTIA President and CEO Meredith Attwell Baker in a statement.

However, CTIA has been at odds with the cable industry and others when it comes to how the 3.45-3.55 GHz auction ultimately gets structured. CTIA is advocating for a style that’s akin to how the FCC conducted the C-band auction, with higher power levels and larger licensed areas than what was awarded in the CBRS auction.

Comcast as recently as last week told members of the commission that they should pursue a framework with “rules designed to foster innovation and broad deployment in the band by a wide array of users.” Cable operators like Comcast and non-traditional entities like Deere & Company, Chevron and Texas A&M University participated in the CBRS auction, and the rules of the 3.45 GHz auction should be structured similarly, according to Comcast.

The Wireless Internet Service Providers Association (WISPA) is in the same general camp as the cable companies, pushing for an auction structured more like CBRS, where bidders would have a chance to acquire spectrum adjacent to the CBRS band in smaller, county-sized areas that correspond to their desired areas of operation.

Open RAN inquiry

Separately, Rosenworcel circulated with her colleagues on the commission a proposal to open a formal discussion on open Radio Access Networks (RAN) and what the FCC should be doing to promote the concept. If adopted at the March 17 meeting, the Notice of Inquiry (NOI) would seek comment on the current status of open RAN development and deployment, whether and how the FCC might foster its success, and how to support new entrants in the market.

“Open RAN has emerged as one promising path to drive 5G security and innovation in the United States,” Rosenworcel stated. “With this inquiry, we will start to compile a record about how we can secure our vulnerable supply chains once and for all, and revitalize the nation’s 5G leadership and innovation.”

The notice would explore the role of established large manufacturers and of new entrants in setting standards for this new network architecture. It’s going deeper than that, however, asking for input about what steps should be taken by the FCC, federal partners, industry, academia, or others to accelerate the timeline for open RAN standards development. The NOI also requests comment on the costs and benefits associated with open RAN. 

What about that ‘acting’ title?

Obviously, Rosenworcel isn’t waiting around for the Biden administration to appoint a third Democrat to the commission or to finally name a chair, rather than “acting chair,” a title that some Democratic lawmakers in Washington, D.C., would like see changed to a permanent status.

More than 30 women who serve in the U.S. Congress sent a letter to Ronald Klain, President Biden’s chief of staff, urging the president to name Rosenworcel as the permanent chairwoman, noting she has the qualifications and experience to be named the first chairwoman of the FCC. (Former Commissioner Mignon Clyburn served as acting chairwoman of the FCC in 2013 before President Barack Obama named Tom Wheeler as chairman.)

“In its nearly 90-year history, the FCC has embarrassingly never had a woman as a permanent chair. This is an unacceptable reality for an agency that oversees one-sixth of our nation’s economy and makes consequential decisions that impact all Americans,” the lawmakers wrote. “While Jessica Rosenworcel is the second woman to be Acting Chair of the FCC, we urge the Administration to nominate her to the permanent role of Chairwoman.”