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The FCC took steps today to make 100 MHz of mid-band spectrum between 3.45 and 3.55 GHz available for 5G use. The commission expects to begin conducting an auction of the spectrum in early October to be known as Auction 110.

One of today’s actions was to adopt an order that reallocates the spectrum for flexible use wireless services on a co-primary basis with incumbent federal users. In addition, the commission adopted a notice of proposed rulemaking (NPRM) that proposes to make ten 10-MHz licenses available in the spectrum band.

Licenses would be awarded by partial economic area (PEA), yielding a total of 4,060 licenses, FCC officials said at today’s monthly commission meeting where the new rules and the NPRM were adopted.

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Mid-band 5G Auction

Mid-band spectrum is widely viewed as supporting the optimum mixture of speed and range for 5G services. Results of the recent C-band auction of mid-band spectrum suggest that Auction 110 should have no problem meeting the reserve price of more than $14.7 billion that has been proposed for it, particularly considering that carriers may be able to aggregate spectrum in the 3.45-3.55 GHz band with spectrum in neighboring frequency bands to boost bandwidth and capacity.

The reserve price is required to cover sharing and relocation costs for federal users in the band, the FCC noted in a press release about the mid-band 5G auction NPRM.

The order also creates what FCC officials at today’s commission meeting called a “sharing regime” between license winners and incumbent federal users based on coordination with the Department of Defense and the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA).

An earlier draft of the NPRM called for five 20-GHz licenses per PEA, but according to FCC Commissioner Geoffrey Starks, the decision to recommend narrower spectrum blocks was made at his urging.

The change, he said, “should increase competition, encourage more efficient bidding and create opportunities for smaller bidders, particularly the rural and regional carriers that are critical to bringing advanced services to our hardest to reach communities.”

Jessica Rosenworcel, acting FCC chair, noted that auction plans also call for “the most aggressive buildout obligations of any spectrum auction for 5G today.” Additionally, she noted that plans include a pre-auction spectrum aggregation limit aimed at preventing a small number of carriers from winning the vast majority of licenses as occurred in the C-band auction.

Two associations representing smaller rural service providers argued that the auction proposal doesn’t go far enough in that direction, however.

In a press release, the Rural Wireless Association noted that PEAs include densely populated urban areas along with sparsely populated rural areas, making it “nearly impossible” for smaller providers to win licenses.

“Like the recently concluded C-Band auction, this auction will be dominated by Verizon, T-Mobile and AT&T,” RWA predicted in a press release. “Large license areas coupled with build out requirements based on population not geography is a formula for stranding rural areas without broadband access because the ‘Big 3’ carriers will focus, as they always have, on highly populated urban network build outs.”

Louis Peraertz, vice president of policy Wireless Internet Service Providers Association, echoed those comments.

“Experience shows that applying the CBRS General Authorized Access rules and county sizes for an auction of the 3.45 GHz band could have attracted more winning bidders than any spectrum auction using much larger [PEAs], which only the largest mobile companies can afford,” said Peraertz in a prepared statement about the 5G mid-band spectrum auction plans.

The spectrum allocated for Auction 110 is a portion of a broader band between 3.3 and 3.55 GHz that is used by federal and non-federal users, with non-federal users operating on a secondary basis. The order adopted today eliminates the non-federal allocation in that band and requires non-federal users to move to the band between 3.3 and 3.45 GHz, FCC officials explained at today’s meeting.

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