The controversy over CBRS band spectrum was contentious, but ultimately it may pale in comparison with what we’re seeing and likely will continue to see with regard to the adjacent C-band. The C-band includes 500 MHz of spectrum between 3.7 and 4.2 GHz that is currently used by satellite providers – at least in some areas – but is suitable for supporting fixed or wireless service, including 5G.
The C-band controversy concerns whether the satellite providers should be allowed to sell that spectrum – an approach the satellite companies say would make spectrum available more quickly. Opponents include T-Mobile, which has proposed instead that the spectrum should be auctioned.
Last summer, the FCC adopted an order requiring fixed-satellite earth stations operating in the C-band to certify the accuracy of existing registration and license information in preparation for possible repurposing of the spectrum. At that time, the FCC also asked for input on how best to open up the band to support “new wireless uses.”
Four satellite providers – including Intelsat, SES, Eutelsat and Telesat — have established a coalition known as the C-Band Alliance (CBA) that has offered to sell at least 180 MHz of the C-band to wireless operators. T-Mobile argues that the satellite providers do not own the spectrum but has proposed that the FCC conduct an incentive auction, with satellite providers and the U.S. Treasury sharing the auction proceeds.
In addition to resolving which, if either, or these proposals to adopt, the FCC also will need to determine whether to adopt a recommendation from the Broadband Access Coalition (BAC) that the commission reserve a portion of the C-band for fixed wireless use. BAC members include NTCA – The Rural Broadband Association, the Rural Wireless Association and the Wireless Internet Service Providers Association, along with individual service providers and vendors.
The BAC argues that mobile carriers would be unable to use the entire C-band because satellite providers would continue to use some of the spectrum. Opponents argue that such a restriction would reduce the potential revenues that would flow to the treasury if the spectrum were to be auctioned. The BAC has not commented publicly about either the CBA or T-Mobile proposals.
What is T-Mobile Thinking?
Some industry observers have speculated that T-Mobile’s motivation for its proposal is to potentially delay other carriers from obtaining mid-band spectrum for 5G. If the Sprint/T-Mobile merger is approved, T-Mobile will gain Sprint’s existing mid-band spectrum holdings, which could be critical to quickly deploying higher-speed 5G services. AT&T and Verizon already have done limited 5G deployments but have used millimeter wave bands, which require a denser cellsite infrastructure, potentially slowing the pace of deployment.
All carriers will have the option of bidding on mid-band spectrum in the upcoming auction of CBRS band spectrum but may want even more than they can obtain through that auction. And the possibility of obtaining both C-band and CBRS spectrum could be particularly attractive because the bands are adjacent to one another and a carrier’s spectrum holdings could be combined to maximize speeds and capacity.