Senate Commerce Committee OKs C-band auction bill

satellite earth station
Satellite operators currently use the C-band to serve broadcasters and radio stations across the country. (Pixabay)

Citing the need for the U.S. to win the race to 5G, the Senate Commerce Committee today voted for legislation directing the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to initiate a C-band auction, with at least 50% of proceeds going to the U.S. treasury and 10% for rural broadband deployments.

The vote along party lines came after a flurry of debate, with Democrats saying they didn’t want foreign satellite companies to get paid for giving up spectrum they don’t own and Republicans arguing that the goal is to pay them only enough to get them off the spectrum.

Senators Roger Wicker, (R-Miss.), and John Thune, (R-S.D.), introduced the amended bill, known as the 5G Spectrum Act of 2019, after working for more than a year to find the best way to expand access to 5G, especially in rural areas. The auction would need to include at least 280 megahertz of C-band spectrum and commence no later than Dec. 31, 2020.

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Senator Maria Cantwell, (D-Wash.), described it as a giving billions of dollars to foreign satellite companies that don’t own the spectrum and shouldn’t be compensated. “These resources are very prized resources but they can’t just be big prizes for foreign companies,” she said. “They have to be the prize of the American taxpayer.”

Wicker said the goal is to get as much money to the U.S. Treasury as possible and to pay the satellite companies only so much as is required to satisfy the law and get the matter settled. He said he would take issue with someone saying that this is some sort of effort to pay foreign satellite companies.

Citing the global race to 5G, Thune said China isn’t having this kind of discussion right now. “They’re just clearing mid-band spectrum and allowing their companies to go after it,” he said. “This is important to the future of this country that we get this right,” and that means making more mid-band spectrum available for 5G.

In the last incentive auction, broadcasters had to be given incentives to move, and what the current bill does is sets a floor, not a ceiling, and provides incentives for the current users to give up the spectrum and move, according to Thune. The legislation is a bipartisan approach, he said. “I will take a backseat to no one on this committee or in the Senate when it comes to advocating for more technology” and services to be delivered to rural areas of the country.

The bill, which runs parallel to some of the work already underway at the FCC, is headed to the Senate floor for a vote and still must be considered by the Democratic-controlled House.

The C-Band Alliance (CBA), which is comprised of Intelsat, SES and Telesat, had been lobbying to control the sale of the spectrum, with FCC oversight, until FCC Chairman Ajit Pai announced his intent to hold a public auction; his plan also is to start an auction before the end of 2020.

“The CBA has consistently supported legislative initiatives that advance the FCC’s efforts to safely clear extremely valuable mid-band spectrum to enable 5G in the U.S.,” the CBA said in a statement. “Today’s committee vote represents a good step in that direction and we thank Senators Wicker and Thune for their vigorous engagement.

“The fast and safe clearing of a portion of the C-band is essential so the U.S. can maintain its global technology leadership and reduce security and defense concerns with respect to our national telecommunications infrastructure, all while protecting the TV and radio services valued by nearly 120 million American households,” CBA added. “We will continue to work with members of Congress and the FCC to reach the best outcome for the United States: a solution that quickly clears badly-needed C-band spectrum for 5G and acknowledges the CBA member companies’ role in the process, their legal rights and their significant investments over decades in the operating C-band ecosystem.”

RELATED: C-Band Alliance taken to task in FCC oversight hearing

It's worth noting that Preston Padden, formerly a spokesman for CBA, believes the current C-band operators should get 100% of the proceeds from the sale of their spectrum usage rights, as presented in this blog. Padden points out that his views are not to implicate any former or current employer.

The Wireless Internet Service Providers Association (WISPA), which represents hundreds of WISPs that operate in rural and other areas across the country, also commended the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee for its work to free up the 280 MHz of C-band spectrum via an FCC-administered, public auction. 

“This is the most fair, effective and taxpayer-friendly way to distribute such a valuable, limited resource.  Moreover, it is good spectrum policy, which will help more Americans get innovative and competitive broadband services,” said Christina Mason, VP of Government Affairs at WISPA, in a statement.

“In all, there is 500 MHz of C-band spectrum which can find better, more efficient use by others. Fixed wireless service providers currently share the C-band with the satellite industry for point-to-point fixed broadband service. WISPA has urged that as the C-band is cleared for auction, a portion of the remaining spectrum allow for shared use by fixed providers through proven, automated frequency coordination."

Though the 5G Spectrum Act doesn’t require any such sharing, it does not preclude it either. “This is, we believe, a tacit recognition by policymakers that spectrum sharing models must play an integral and growing role in alleviating the near ceaseless demand for spectrum,” Mason added. “Further, it also keeps open the possibility that the FCC could easily and quickly permit new coordinated, point-to-multi-point uses in the C-band, both protecting the delivery of programming and expeditiously bridging digital divides in rural areas through the provision of new broadband services.”

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