FCC Chairman Ajit Pai sent a letter to members of Congress today saying he wants the commission to conduct an auction of 280 MHz of spectrum in the C-band. On a conference call with reporters, senior FCC officials said the next step will be a report and order that they expect the commission to vote on in early 2020, with the auction to begin before the end of next year.

The C-band is currently in the hands of satellite operators that use it to transmit video programming to video service providers. A group of the satellite operators known as the C-Band Alliance had offered to conduct an auction of a portion of the band and to share the proceeds with the U.S. treasury, but according to the FCC officials, the commission determined that the C-Band Alliance would not be able to conduct a fair and transparent auction.

FCC C-Band Spectrum Auction
C-band spectrum is considered mid-band spectrum, which is currently in great demand, as some stakeholders believe it offers the best mixture of coverage and speed for 5G wireless deployments. Combined with a 20-MHz guard band, the spectrum that the FCC proposes to auction represents three fifths of the C-band, which is comprised of spectrum between 3700-4200 MHz.

The portion slated for auction would include spectrum between 3700 and 3980 MHz, with incumbent users moved to the upper 200 MHz of the band. The C-Band Alliance had proposed auctioning the same amount of spectrum, as modern technology now enables satellite operators to transmit video more efficiently, eliminating the need for them to use the full band.

It is customary for a portion of auction proceeds to go to incumbent spectrum users in cases where those users must be repacked into a different portion of a spectrum band. In at least one case, the commission went further and allowed existing licensees to share in the proceeds beyond simply recovering repacking costs. That occurred in 2017 when broadcasters voluntarily relinquished some of their spectrum and shared the net proceeds with the government.

The FCC officials declined to say, however, whether the FCC C-band auction proposal calls for such an arrangement involving the government and the satellite operators.

According to the letter that Pai sent to members of Congress, the C-band auction proposal will be driven by four principles, including:

  • The auction must make available a significant amount of C-band spectrum for 5G.
  • The spectrum must be made available quickly.
  • The auction must generate revenue for the federal government.
  • Services that are currently delivered using the C-band must be protected.

News of Pai’s plan came to light just after the C-Band Alliance sent the FCC what it called a “treasury contribution proposal” that detailed how the alliance proposed to share proceeds from the auction it proposed to conduct. That proposal calls for a progressive formula that would give the treasury 30% to 75% of proceeds, depending on the auction outcome.

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