12 Days of Broadband: Nearly 10 Months Without FCC Spectrum Authority

As the global race for 5G dominance continues, a significant hurdle looms ahead.

12 Days of Broadband: Nearly 10 Months Without FCC Spectrum Authority
Illustration by DALL-E

January 1, 2024 – Nearly 10 months have passed since the Federal Communications Commission lost its authority to auction off fresh spectrum licenses on March 9, 2023. Further, there are no available bands in the nation’s spectrum pipeline. 

This prolonged situation has raised industry concerns about the future of 5G

stemming from the scarcity of accessible mid-band spectrum and the uncertainty surrounding upcoming spectrum auctions.

The ongoing spectrum standstill prompted the need for a bill to be pushed forward to enable the FCC to authorize the sale of 8,000 2.5 GigaHertz (GHz) spectrum licenses sold to companies last year. President Biden signed the 5G Sale Act to reinstate limited FCC authority to auction the 2.5 GHz licenses on December 19.

T-Mobile is poised to leverage the over $300 million worth of spectrum licenses it secured to fortify its existing 5G networks. 

Otherwise stagnant spectrum pipeline prompts worries

A years-long battle between the Defense Department and the commercial telecommunications industry over access to the 3.1-3.45 GHz S-band raged between military and commercial establishments.

The Defense Department produced a report in December finding that the agency cannot currently share S-band spectrum with commercial users. The Pentagon currently uses the band for its air, land and sea-based radars, weapons systems and other electronics.

The Defense Department was required to produce the report investigating the potential for commercial use of the spectrum in conjunction with the Commerce Department’s National Telecommunications and Information Administration, which administers use of the airwaves by federal agencies. The study was required by the 2021 Infrastructure, Investment and Jobs Act. 

This spectrum band is considered important because it allows for longer-range transmissions than the millimeter-wave spectrum that makes up much of what has so far been available in the U.S.

The NTIA will continue to study opening the band in the future, either by exploring options that would make spectrum sharing possible or moving a government system to another band. 

National Spectrum Policy released

That and other studies laid out in the Biden Administration’s National Spectrum Policy released in November are set to be complete within the coming two years. The White House’s plan calls for a two-year study on potentially repurposing five spectrum bands, a total of 2,786 megahertz, and identifies the lower 3 GHz and the 7-8 GHz bands as primary contenders for a strong pipeline of spectrum for private sector use. 

The plan also calls for the federal government to develop a new process aimed at increasing communication in decision making between government and private sector stakeholders.

The last time the federal government freed up spectrum for commercial use was when the 3.45-3.55 GHz band was made available under Republican FCC chief Ajit Pai in 2020.

This uncertainty about spectrum places the U.S. in a troubling position. The government’s reservoir of new spectrum for private sector allocation appears to be drying up. The typically bipartisan process of replenishing it has ground to a halt.

Months of delays and disagreements over reauthorization

Many thought the shock of the lapse of the FCC’s spectrum auction authority would prompt quick action in the 118th Congress.. 

The House Energy and Commerce Committee cleared in May a bill that would reinstate FCC spectrum auction authority for three years. That bill would allow for, but not mandate, an auction of the lower 3 GHz band.The bill stalled after clearing the Energy and Commerce Committee.

In an Expert Opinion piece in Broadband Breakfast, Joel Thayer argued that unnecessary intergovernmental infighting is now jeopardizing the nation’s 5G rollout.

“What’s more, the advent of AI will require even more data transmissions over our 5G networks and will inevitably strain them. Without a refilled spectrum pipeline, data-driven applications—like AI—will become a pipedream for the U.S.,” he wrote.

See “The Twelve Days of Broadband” on Broadband Breakfast

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