At a White House event today with President Donald Trump, Federal Communications Commission Chairman Ajit Pai is expected to announce a Dec. 10 start date for the third millimeter wave spectrum auction and a plan to create a Rural Digital Opportunity Fund that would inject $20.4 billion into broadband networks for rural America over the next decade.
It’s all part of a plan to keep the U.S. ahead in the global race to 5G. (According to CTIA, citing a report from research firm Analysys Mason, the U.S. is tied for first with China in global 5G readiness.)
The third 5G spectrum auction will be the largest in American history, with the FCC set to sell 3,400 megahertz in three different spectrum bands at one time—37 GHz, 39 GHz and 47 GHz. At its monthly open meeting today, the full commission voted unanimously on a Public Notice seeking comment on procedures for the auction of these bands, in what will be known as Auction 103.
The FCC’s 28 GHz auction ended earlier this year with over $700 million in proceeds, and the 24 GHz auction, which is still underway, is now at $1.9 billion in gross proceeds.
According to Pai, America is well-positioned in the race to 5G because the FCC has been executing the Facilitating America’s Superiority in 5G Technologies (FAST) plan, which was announced last year at the White House 5G summit. At the White House meeting today, Pai is expected to discuss FAST and the progress America is making in the race to 5G.
There have been public calls by some for a government-directed national network for 5G—something Pai and other FCC members have said is a bad idea.
The lesson from 4G is American leadership was built and maintained because of the market-based approach and a wholesale network would be the wrong answer for American consumers at the end of the day, according to Pai, who held a conference call with reporters before the White House event.
Pai, who has been a big advocate for getting decent broadband services to rural areas, also said fixed wireless carriers can use some of the wide channels available in millimeter wave bands to provide very high speed, low latency connectivity to rural communities. He recently met with a startup in the Bay Area that is able to use a combination of the 60 GHz band and fixed infrastructure to provide an online experience comparable to what one would get from a terrestrial provider in an urban area. “I’m very bullish on the capabilities of 5G in rural areas,” he said.
Pai also intends to create the Rural Digital Opportunity Fund, which will inject $20.4 billion into high-speed broadband networks in rural America over the next decade. It will provide funding through a reverse auction to service providers that will deploy infrastructure to provide up to gigabit-speed broadband in the parts of the country most in need of connectivity.
The Rural Digital Opportunity Fund represents the FCC’s single biggest step yet to close the digital divide, and would connect up to 4 million rural homes and small businesses to high-speed broadband networks.
The Wireless Internet Service Providers Association (WISPA) was encouraged by the news.
“WISPA hails the intensified focus on bettering rural connectivity, which will help country farmers receive the same evolving level of broadband services and connectivity as city financiers,” said WISPA President and CEO Claude Aiken in a statement. “We encourage the Administration and the FCC to consider how spectrum policy that enables small, rural providers to offer better services will make this investment even more cost-effective. There will be significant opportunities ahead as the underlying programs come online, and our members–who provide fixed wireless broadband to nearly 4 million rural Americans–stand ready to help the White House and the FCC meet those goals to bridge the digital divide.”
FCC Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel, a Democrat, reiterated her call for more mid-band spectrum for 5G, an area where she says the U.S. is woefully lagging.
“So far, this Administration’s interventions on 5G have done more harm than good,” she said in a statement. “From imposing tariffs on 5G equipment to alienating allies on 5G security to falling behind the rest of the world on critical mid-band spectrum, the White House has yet to offer a workable plan for US leadership. On top of that, allies of this Administration are muddling our efforts with persistent talk of a nationalized 5G network. I hope today’s announcement offers better because our global leadership is at stake.”