WASHINGTON, D.C.–In the Federal Communications Commission’s quest to free up more mid-band spectrum for 5G wireless services, the debate around the C Band is one of the most contentious and complicated. That complexity was reflected at a panel on Wednesday, with most of the debate centering around
The panel was hosted by the Technology Policy Institute, and the think-tank itself has noted that while there is “widespread agreement that at least some C-Band spectrum should be available for terrestrial uses instead of satellite uses, and that the reallocation should happen as quickly as possible … there is less agreement on how much to reallocate and how to do it.”
The C Band spectrum at issue is 500 megahertz between 3.7-4.2 GHz. The FCC has been exploring the potential repurposing of the C Band in recent years. The agency issued a notice of proposed rulemaking last summer to gather information on the possibility of transitioning all or part of the C Band to terrestrial wireless broadband use, possibly under the auspices of an auction. A previous proposed rulemaking in 2017 had sought information about whether the spectrum could be opened up for flexible use. The commission has made opening up additional mid-band spectrum a priority (along with the auction of millimeter wave spectrum) in its efforts to support U.S. deployments of 5G.
Major satellite operators have proposed a private auction of a portion of the spectrum; the C-Band Alliance, formed last year and made up of satellite providers, would conduct that auction. The satellite operators say they could rapidly clear up to 200 megahertz of spectrum (180 megahertz with a 20 megahertz guard band) for wireless terrestrial use, with some available as soon as 18 months after an auction.
Steve Sharkey, VP of government affairs, engineering and technology policy at T-Mobile US, called the C-Band Alliance’s proposal a “monopoly approach, not a market-based approach.” T-Mobile US has proposed an incentive auction model, similar to the one that was used to auction 600 MHz spectrum. Allowing satellite companies to sell a portion of the spectrum now at very high prices and sell more later if it chose — presumably also at high cost — probably looks better to those players than selling all of the available spectrum at once, he said. Not so for T-Mobile US, which would be competing with deep-pocketed AT&T and Verizon for such spectrum, Sharkey noted. He also said that the satellite industry only holds licenses dedicated to satellite-based use, and therefore cannot actually sell licenses for terrestrial use: the FCC would have to give its blessing on the change in use at some point, which makes the transactions different than the usual secondary-market sales that happen commonly.
Peter Pitsch, head of advocacy and government relations for the C-Band Alliance, countered that the CBA’s approach “would look an awful lot like the FCC auction, but three years sooner.” Pitsch said noted that because satellite license holders are authorized use up to the full 500 megahertz of the band, any one of them could hold up a voluntary incentive auction, and accused T-Mobile US of wanting to pit satellite operators against earth-station operators in order to undermine that possibility. When satellite players proposed the private auction process, he said, it created a win-win situation in that the satellite industry is offering to free up spectrum faster than it would otherwise, internalizing the importance of getting the spectrum to market rapidly — not just for the would-be buyers, but for the current holders of the spectrum. Wireless operators, he added, are not facing the potential Wall Street fallout that satellite companies are, for giving up spectrum resources.
Colleen King, VP of regulatory affairs for Charter Communications, said that while the C Band does serve an important purpose and should not be disrupted, 5G is important as well — and her company doesn’t believe that satellite companies should be the ones to decide how much spectrum to make available for 5G and conducting the auction. Charter, she went on, has concerns about the transparency of a private auction process as well as other aspects. The FCC is the agency with the authority and expertise to conduct auctions, from their legal implications to ensuring fair access and public input, she said — and in Charter’s view, the agency should continue to be the entity running auctions. King said that essentially outsourcing an auction to private companies is a “dangerous precedent.”
Patrick McFadden, general counsel for the National Association of Broadcasters, said that the C Band proceeding is a very complicated one — perhaps not the most complicated one that the FCC has ever dealt with, but “they have a lot of competing interests to balance. But I think they’re trying to move forward as quickly and efficiently as they responsibly can.”