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Mid-band spectrum holds promise for 5G, but will there be enough?

It has been nearly a year since President Donald Trump called on federal agencies to increase the efficient and effective use of spectrum to meet national security, economic, and other goals now and going forward. The October 25, 2018, Presidential Memorandum on Developing a Sustainable Spectrum Strategy for America’s Future made it clear that access to spectrum is a critical component to maintaining America’s lead in next-generation technologies, particularly for 5G network deployment.

The widespread use of 5G wireless will dramatically change mobile communications across the nation and lay the groundwork to support an increasing number of internet of things (IoT) applications and devices. While 5G networks are currently being deployed using high-band millimeter wave and low-band spectrum, deployment of 5G using mid-band spectrum is critical but more complex due to the number of incumbent users within each of the bands.

Considered the sweet spot of spectrum, mid-band has unique properties that make it key to the 5G infrastructure deployment. According to Intel, “Mid-Band spectrum is especially well-suited for mobile broadband due to its wide coverage, and potential for low latency, and high reliability.” It doesn’t require several small cells to be located into a condensed area because data signals can travel through a larger range in the spectrum; its wide channels also allow for high-speed data transfers.

The economic impact of mid-band spectrum utilization was highlighted in a February 2019 Analysis Group study, which found that reallocating 400 MHz of spectrum in the 3.45 to 4.2 GHz range for licensed mid-band spectrum could promote $154 billion in capital expenditures by wireless providers for 5G networks, add $274 billion to the GDP, and, create 1.3 million new direct and indirect jobs. However, countries like China and South Korea are already deploying mid-band spectrum ahead of the United States.

As part of the line-up for its September 26, 2019, meeting, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) will seek comments for Auction 105 of the Priority Access Licenses (PALs) that provide mobile services or point-to-multi-point services in the 3550-3650 MHz band used for Citizens Broadband Radio Service (CBRS). This 100 MHz of spectrum has been used by the DoD, satellite service providers and utilities. Protections will be built into the CBRS rules to safeguard incumbents from interference between users.

Pending for some time on the FCC’s radar is the potential auction of mid-band spectrum in the 3.7 to 4.2 GHz range, also known as the c-band. This 500 MHz swath of prime spectrum is currently used by satellite and video content providers for content distribution and satellite phone service for those areas where existing landline or cellular capabilities are nonexistent or unreliable. In Sahara, starring Matthew McConaughey, one of the characters is using a satellite phone to talk to the admiral during a high-speed boat chase. A satellite was also used to upload and download the video content of the movie for viewers on various devices.

While satellite services using this band provide a lot of content and communications capabilities, the band is underutilized and could be auctioned for licensed use. The satellite industry has indicated a willingness to vacate 200 MHz of this spectrum, but there is an ongoing debate over how to auction the vacated spectrum, whether through a private sale that would allow the satellite owners to keep the proceeds from this government-owned spectrum, or through an FCC conducted auction, under which the U.S. Treasury would receive the proceeds of the sale following reimbursement to satellite and other incumbent users for expenses related to vacating the spectrum. Since the FCC began auctioning spectrum in 1994, the taxpayers have received more than $122 billion from those sales.

To protect taxpayers’ interests, Sen. John G. Kennedy, R-La., added to the fiscal year 2020 Financial Services and General Government Appropriations Act report language that urges the FCC to conduct a public auction of the c-band spectrum, rather than allow it to be sold in a private transaction.

Finally, there is a 6 GHz spectrum band that would be useful for unlicensed purposes central to enabling IoT devices and supporting Wi-Fi 6, which is expected to bring faster speeds to the Wi-Fi experience. Opening this spectrum for unlicensed use follows the FCC’s 5G FAST Plan, which pushes more spectrum into the marketplace; updates infrastructure policy; and modernizes outdated regulations governing the spectrum.

Making more mid-band spectrum available for 5G deployment and protecting taxpayers’ interests during the auction process is essential to maintaining U.S. leadership in mobile communications for decades to come.

Deborah Collier is director of technology and telecommunications policy at private nonprofit think tank Citizens Against Government Waste.

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