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FCC Chairman Ajit Pai Attempts to Broker Agreement Between Satellite and Broadband for the C-Band

Adrienne Patton

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Photo of FCC Chairman Ajit Pai and ITIF Director Doug Brake by Adrienne Patton

WASHINGTON, February 6, 2020 – Federal Communications Commission Chairman Ajit Pai announced a reimbursement plan for incumbents offering satellite service in the C-Band in order to facilitate a public auction that is scheduled to begin December 8, 2020, Pai said Thursday.

Speaking at the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation, Pai discussed preliminary details of the FCC’s plan to free up C-Band spectrum in light what he called a rapid race for 5G deployment.

Pai said 280 megahertz airwaves within the C-Band, from 3.7 GigaHertz (GHz) to 4.2 GHz, will be repurposed for 5G deployment.

The 600 megahertz within the C-Band is currently primarily used by satellite companies, and Pai said the C-Band was “an enormous opportunity” because satellite companies do not need the entire spectrum.

He also said he wants the repurposing to be “consumer friendly” and the FCC has explored all options in this complicated debate.

He laid out four principles for repurposing the C-Band.

  • First, “make a significant amount spectrum in the C-Band available for 5G.”
  • Second, “quickly” move efforts to free the C-Band spectrum.
  • Third, “generate revenue for the federal government.”
  • Fourth, “ensure that the services that are currently delivered using the C-Band continue to be delivered to the American people.”

The FCC decided public auctions would be the best approach, as “bidders would be less likely to participate in an untested private auction,” said Pai. The FCC also has more legal control over public auctions.

Pai also announced that successful bidders will reimburse the satellite companies for relocation. Pai said this is meant to incentivize incumbent satellite companies to move quickly and meet deadlines.

“I am proposing to give satellite operators the opportunity to receive accelerated relocation payments of $9.7 billion if they meet [the] accelerated clearing milestones,” explained Pai.

“At the FCC, we are determined to lead the world in pushing out mid-band spectrum for 5G, just as we have led with high and low-band spectrum,” said Pai.

In an effort to secure American leadership in the race to 5G, Pai said, “we must and we will continue to take bold and aggressive action to make more mid-band spectrum available for the commercial marketplace.”

Reactions to the plan from legislators, industry and think tanks

Although Pai said he was expecting disapproval from both sides of the aisle, generally positive comments were received.

Pai said he believed this is a happy medium between incumbents’ asking price and the urgency for 5G.

Rep. Mike Rogers, R-Alabama, released a statement: "[Pai's] announcement today made clear that he understands the importance of this race to our country’s national security and economic future."

However, House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Frank Pallone, D-N.J., expressed concern and, together with subcommittee chairman Rep. Mike Doyle, D-Penn., suggested legislation on the issue.

"The questionable legal basis for the satellite incentives will likely result in litigation, which will delay the deployment of 5G," they said.

The Wireless Internet Service Providers Associations said it was heartened by the moves because of the current way in which the C-Band is “grossly underutilized, especially in our spectrum-constrained world.”

Referred to spectrum sharing technology, WISPA Vice President Louis Peraertz said, “This sharing has been proven. Satellite earth stations have coexisted with point-to-point fixed wireless services for decades. It is also a potent way to open the remainder of the band to fixed wireless providers and other competitive innovators.”

“The plan Pai announced today is a thoughtful effort to balance the various interests in a way that advances overall consumer welfare and the national interest,” said Randy May, president of the free-market Free State Foundation. “Because speed in repurposing the C-Band spectrum is all-important, providing sufficient compensation to the incumbent satellite operators to incentive their active cooperation and avoid litigation that might derail implementation is a key objective.”

Pai is expected to release the official plan for C-Band spectrum on Friday.

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