The FCC set the stage today for more auctions of 5G spectrum. At today’s monthly meeting, the commission adopted rules for the auction of millimeter wave spectrum in the 37, 39 and 47 GHz bands and approved a plan to auction a portion of spectrum in the 2.5 GHz band that was originally set aside years ago for educational usage.
The 2.5 GHz auction would be one of the first auctions of mid-band 5G spectrum in the U.S., where the initial 5G emphasis was on millimeter wave bands. FCC Commissioner Michael O’Rielly noted, however, that in many urban areas, 2.5 GHz spectrum will not be available for auction.
Millimeter Wave Auction
The 37, 39 and 47 GHz millimeter wave spectrum auction, to be known as Auction 103 and scheduled for December 10, 2019, will make licenses available on a partial economic area (PEA) basis, according to the rules adopted today. Licenses will be for 100-MHz blocks of spectrum.
The auction will consist of a clock phase, in which bidders will bid for generic blocks of spectrum in either the 47 GHz band or the 37/39 GHz band, to be followed by an assignment phase, in which bidders will compete for specific spectrum blocks within those bands.
2.5 GHz Auction
The 2.5 GHz band initially was set aside in the 1960s for educational television but was rarely used for that purpose. Years ago, the FCC renamed the band Educational Broadband Service (EBS) and said the spectrum could be used for broadband initiatives supporting educational use. In some areas, such deployments have occurred. Alternatively, educational license holders have leased much of the spectrum to commercial mobile network operators, including Sprint.
As previously outlined, the order adopted by the FCC today would give tribal entities the opportunity to gain licenses for 2.5 GHz EBS spectrum in their territories. Subsequently, an auction of unlicensed spectrum in the 2.5 GHz band would be held.
Today’s order calls for county-sized licenses, including two blocks of approximately 50 MHz each and a 16.5 MHz block. Plans also call for bidding credits for small businesses, rural service providers and tribal entities.
The two Democratic commissioners – Jessica Rosenworcel and Geoffrey Starks – approved the order in part and dissented in part.
Pointing to successful EBS deployments, Starks expressed disappointment that educational entities for years have been prohibited from obtaining new EBS licenses. Rosenworcel argued that it would have been preferable to conduct an incentive auction that would give existing educational entities the opportunity to relinquish licenses in exchange for a portion of the auction proceeds.
Rosenworcel’s comments are somewhat at odds with something she said today during discussion of plans for the December millimeter wave auction. During that discussion, Rosenworcel criticized the FCC for emphasizing millimeter wave spectrum over mid-band spectrum. She noted that the U.S. and 15 other countries have conducted auctions of 5G spectrum, and that the U.S. is the only one of the 16 that has not yet auctioned mid-band spectrum for 5G.
FCC Chairman Ajit Pai appeared to single her out in his comments about 2.5 GHz auction plans, arguing that “it is equal parts ironic and amusing that some continue to claim that we’re doing too little to free up mid-band spectrum, but then oppose every single initiative we’ve undertaken to do just that.” In addition to opposition to 2.5 GHz auction plans, Pai referenced opposition to proposed plans for the 3.5 GHz band and the C-band.
The 3.5 GHz band, also known as the CBRS band, is already earmarked for an auction, but Pai’s comments may refer to Rosenworcel’s dissenting vote on those plans. She argued that licenses should have been issued for shorter time periods and smaller areas to encourage creative new use cases.
The C-band includes spectrum currently in the hands of satellite providers that have proposed to conduct their own auction of the spectrum, arguing that this approach would free up the spectrum more quickly. Opponents argue that the FCC should conduct the auction.