Lawmakers call on FCC to speed efforts to release midband spectrum for 5G

3 Hong Kong has completed its latest 5G network trial (Image Vertigo3d / iStockPhoto)
The signal range and indoor penetration make midband spectrum particularly important for 5G. (Vertigo3d/iStockPhoto)

Just after the FCC agreed to propose rules to reallocate spectrum in the 1675-1680 MHz band for shared use between incumbent federal users and new, non-federal users, lawmakers are calling on the FCC to speed up the availability of midband spectrum for 5G.

Senators Roger Wicker, (R-Mississippi), and John Thune, (R-South Dakota), sent a letter (PDF) to FCC Chairman Ajit Pai on Friday thanking him for the FCC’s progress in bringing millimeter wave spectrum to market. But they noted that in Mobile Now, Congress directed the FCC to evaluate commercial wireless use of spectrum in the 3.7-4.2 GHz band, a process that the commission has begun.

“In the year since the passage of that law, the need for action has become even more acute,” the senators wrote. “It has been estimated that accelerating infrastructure deployment by one year could drive an additional $100 billion in economic impact in the next three years. Therefore, we urge the Commission to act quickly to make spectrum in the 3.7 GHz to 4.2 GHz band available for 5G.”

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Just the day prior, the FCC voted to kick off a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (NPRM) that proposes reallocating spectrum in the 1675-1680 MHz band for flexible wireless use, so long as incumbent federal users—namely, weather balloons—are protected. The NPRM asks a series of questions, including how best to achieve the goal of having weather forecasters continue to get access to the data they need.

In voting for the 1675-1680 MHz proceeding, Republican Commissioner Brendan Carr noted that it is a “small sliver” of mid-band spectrum they’re talking about, but combined with adjacent and nearby channels, it could become a 40 MHz block that offers high-throughput at great distance, which are excellent characteristics for next-gen mobile broadband.

Democratic Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel, however, said the rulemaking they passed on Thursday begins a proceeding to make a “tiny bit of spectrum” in the 1675-1680 MHz band available for shared use, and it will only take place after the completion of a government study and an auction that’s not yet scheduled.

She supported the measure but added that it’s a small step that doesn’t change the big truth, and she reiterated calls for the FCC to act faster on scheduling midband auctions and moving faster on a plan for the 3.7-4.2 GHz band.

RELATED: Editor’s Corner—U.S. needs to fix its midband problem, stat

For his part, FCC Chairman Pai, a Republican, said the movement on the 1675-1680 MHz band was another example of the FCC’s aggressive “all of the above” strategy to free up spectrum for commercial use. With millimeter wave spectrum auctions on the books, the FCC is also working to repurpose midband spectrum for 5G, including rulemakings to free up spectrum in the 2.5, 3.7, 4.9 and 6 GHz bands. The 3.5 GHz band will see an auction next year, and there’s ongoing work with federal partners to share the 3.1, 3.45 and 5.9 GHz bands.

The 3.7-4.2 GHz band in particular has been the subject of much debate over whether to accept a proposal by the C-Band Alliance (CBA) of satellite operators that want to release up to 200 megahertz of a 500-megahertz band for 5G.

Opponents say the satellite companies don’t actually own the spectrum and therefore should not be able to sell it on the open market, while the satellite players insist their proposal makes the most sense and will get midband spectrum into the hands of U.S. wireless carriers the most expeditiously—plus, they need to protect incumbent users of the spectrum, which their proposal would do.

Interestingly, New Street Research analysts, in a May 13 note recapping last week’s spectrum-related events, said they believe it will most likely be the fourth quarter of 2019 before the C-Band issues are resolved—but it could be later. They noted that Chairman Pai has a good track record of delivering items on his publicly announced timetable, and he has indicated the commission will act by the end of the year on the C-Band.

But the New Street analysts added that investors should understand that Congress might act while the FCC is considering the policy. There are continued rumblings about legislation that could include some instructions on how to address the C-Band, and several lawmakers recently reiterated concerns that the CBA proposal lacks funds for the U.S. Treasury.

They also said they do not believe the departure of NTIA chief David Redl will affect the C-Band process.

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