Wireless Tower

The boom in fixed wireless deployments has been driven by a combination of technology advances and greater availability of suitable spectrum – and the fixed wireless industry is eyeing more spectrum that the government expects to make available. In a session at WISPAMERICA 2021 yesterday, representatives of the Wireless Internet Service Providers Association provided an informative spectrum auctions update – including when various bands are likely to be auctioned and how suitable each band is likely to be for WISPs.

The suitability of a spectrum band depends, in part, on the rules that the government sets for that band, and the WISPA representatives discussed those rules and possible outcomes in cases where rules have not yet been established.

WISPAMERICA 2021 was noteworthy in that it was one of the first industry conferences to be held in person since COVID-19 was declared a national emergency over a year ago. Some sessions, including this one, are also being made available to people who registered to attend online.

Spectrum Auctions Update

The next spectrum auction we’re likely to see is for the 3.45-3.55 GHz band, noted Steve Coran, outside counsel for WISPA, in the WISPAMERICA session. That auction must take place before the end of the year, based on action taken by federal legislators, and has been scheduled to start in October.

And while some people had hoped that the 2.5 GHz auction might occur first, Coran doesn’t expect to see that happen.

Instead, he expects the FCC to conduct the 3.45-3.55 GHz auction first to give interested parties sufficient time to raise money to participate in the 2.5 GHz auction. That means the 2.5 GHz auction is likely to start late this year or in early 2022, he said.

Of the two auctions, the 2.5 GHz auction is likely to be of greater interest to WISPs because licenses will be by county, while the FCC’s latest proposal for the 3.45-3.55 GHz band calls for licenses to be auctioned by partial economic area (PEA). PEAs are much larger than counties, which means their cost will be too high for most WISPs, Coran said.

The 2.5 GHz band includes spectrum that originally was intended for educational use but has not been widely used for that purpose. T-Mobile gained control of a large amount of the spectrum when it merged with Sprint, which had accumulated the spectrum through agreements with educational entities.

More recently, tribal entities were given the option of obtaining licenses on tribal lands. Licenses for counties not already allocated to entities such as T-Mobile and the tribes will be the focus of the auction.

The FCC has not yet determined certain rules for the 2.5 GHz auction, such as how the auction would be conducted. WISPA would like to see a sealed bid approach such as what was used in the Rural Broadband Experiments auction, Coran said.

He added, though, that T-Mobile and the Competitive Carriers Association would like to see a multiple-round approach that would enable bidders to see what others are bidding. T-Mobile is likely to be particularly interested in the 2.5 GHz band as a means of rounding out its existing holdings and, as Coran noted, the multiple-round approach would make it easier for the company to average bids nationwide.

The 3.45-3.55 GHz band includes spectrum that was traditionally used by non-federal radiolocation and amateur users who will be required to move to an adjacent band, assuming the auction raises enough money to cover estimated relocation costs. Licenses will be for 10-MHz swaths and no carrier will be allowed to obtain more than 40 MHz in a PEA – a rule Coran said is aimed at protecting the large national carriers from one another.

Other interesting points from the WISPAMERICA session:

  • Coran sees the FCC’s approach to spectrum in the 4.9 GHz band possibly changing. The band had been lightly used for public safety, but FCC action last year gave authority to the states to lease unused spectrum in the band. That approach has not been popular with the public safety community or with Democratic commissioners, and with the change in administration, the FCC is likely to revise plans for the band, Coran said.
  • When asked who had obtained priority access licenses in the CBRS auction, approximately one quarter to one-third of those attending the WISPA spectrum auction update session raised their hands – a strong showing in an auction in which licenses were issued by county. Almost 70 WISPA members won licenses, according to the organization.

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