Spectrum screen unlikely to happen anytime soon, says former FCC chief

Although he’d be all for it, former Federal Communications Commission Chairman Tom Wheeler is doubtful that a new spectrum screen would be implemented anytime soon, including before upcoming 5G mid-band spectrum auctions. 

AT&T filed a petition (PDF) earlier this month asking the FCC for a rulemaking to establish a mid-band spectrum screen, pointing to T-Mobile’s vast 2.5 GHz mid-band spectrum holdings thanks in large part to its merger with Sprint. A spectrum screen is basically designed so that no single carrier ends up with an unfair competitive advantage due to the amount of spectrum it holds.

Screens have been in place for years, but AT&T wants one that specifically addresses mid-band spectrum, which is increasingly important in 5G. In AT&T’s filing, it describes mid-band 5G spectrum as between 2.5 and 6 GHz. It's not seeking a screen before the 3.45 GHz action, which is scheduled to start October 5; a date has not yet been set for the 2.5 GHz auction. 

RELATED: AT&T pushes FCC for mid-band spectrum screen

Wheeler was chairman of the FCC during the second Obama administration (2013-2017) and currently serves at the Brookings Institution. He’s also a past president of both CTIA (1992-2004) and the National Cable Television Association (NCTA).  

Tom Wheeler
Tom Wheeler

Wheeler recalls when AT&T and Verizon were the targets of a spectrum screen ahead of the 600 MHz incentive auction, and ultimately, the commission put a screen in place. For that, he was called on the carpet numerous times by various members of Congress, an indication of just how fierce the battles over spectrum holdings can get.  

Back then, AT&T was a target in the spectrum screen. Now, it finds itself on the other side, asking for a screen, which goes to show that: “where you stand depends on where you sit,” Wheeler quipped during an interview with Fierce.

For mid-band 5G, a spectrum screen should have been addressed by the Trump FCC when they were dealing with opening up the 3.45 GHz, according to Wheeler. Now, “I think it would be virtually impossible before the 3.45 [auction] and extremely difficult and hazardous before the 2.5, depending on when they schedule the auction,” he said.  

If the FCC wants to be assured of a successful 3.45 GHz auction, they ought to clarify their position on the screen with respect to the 2.5 GHz auction before the 3.45 GHz auction begins, according to New Street Research analysts, who hosted Wheeler at an investor event this week.

In a September 15 note, the analysts said T-Mobile probably won’t know whether a screen will be implemented before the 2.5 GHz auction when they’re bidding in 3.45 GHz, which would put them in an awkward position. The reasoning is if T-Mobile sees the creation of a spectrum screen as likely, it would sit out of the 3.45 GHz auction altogether in order to gather more 2.5 GHz spectrum.

The New Street analysts, led by Jonathan Chaplin, concluded that they don’t think a mid-band screen is actually all that likely, but that clarity from the FCC would be beneficial before the 3.45 GHz auction begins. 

It's worth noting that the FCC under Wheeler, a Democrat, was not supportive of the original Sprint/T-Mobile proposal. It was approved in 2019 under then-FCC Chairman Ajit Pai, a Republican.

Ligado stills stands

One of the proceedings that lingered during both Wheeler and Pai's time at the FCC was Ligado, which for years had tried to get its L-band spectrum plans approved by the commission. That approval finally came under Pai, and Wheeler said it was the rare occasion in which he agreed with Pai.

Before he joined the FCC, Wheeler served on the Technological Advisory Council of the commission, which conducted a lengthy investigation related to Ligado. Through all of that study, nothing emerged to indicate it would pose harmful interference with GPS, according to Wheeler. Yet to this day, the GPS community is still raising concerns about Ligado.

RELATED: Ligado inks deal with Mavenir for 5G base stations

Early into the Ligado eons-long proceedings, and to some extent today, speculation ran high that an operator like Verizon or AT&T would be happy to get their hands on Ligado’s L-band spectrum. (Verizon has said it’s not interested; Ligado says it's plowing ahead with its 5G plans.)

Speaking about his early days in wireless, Wheeler described meeting with a wireless industry pioneer who promised to tell Wheeler everything he needed to know about the industry. The industry veteran took a cocktail napkin and drew an “S = S.” Through the second “S,” he drew a straight line, illustrating what many have come to know: Spectrum equals dollars. That, according to Wheeler, is something Ligado investors can rest assured of.