5G services: Another FCC auction to jumpstart carrier deployments

The FCC is auctioning off 100MHz more of mid-range radio-frequency licenses suitable for 5G services and to trying to make it easier for the winners to put them to use quickly.

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Orna Wachman (CC0)

The Federal Communications Commission plans yet another auction of radio-frequency spectrum suitable for delivering 5G services and continues to scrutinize the security of 5G infrastructure made in China, both of which will affect how quickly 5G services are deployed.

The commission says it will seek bids on licensing another 100MHz swath of RF spectrum in the 3.4GHz mid-band range, which lies close to the C-band frequencies that were auctioned off late last year, and will impose stiff build-out requirements on winning bidders in order to get 5G infrastructure up and running quickly.

“[D]uring the past few years the United States was slow, relative to other countries, to recognize the importance of mid-band spectrum for 5G,” said acting FCC commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel in a statement. “So mid-band spectrum has been the critical component that is missing, and our action here helps fix that.”

This is a continuation of long-standing plans to open more spectrum for 5G use, but ABI Research analyst Leo Gergs said the timing of the announcements marks a subtle shift. “What the new administration has done has accelerated these plans,” Gergs said.

He also noted that the new spectrum is adjacent to Citizen's Broadband Radio Service (CBRS) range auctioned off last summer, some of it to enterprises. “[I]t opens up new opportunities to combine that spectrum, so an enterprise could go with an operator that has some of this spectrum and then be able to combine it with CBRS resources to have even more opportunity for higher-bandwidth applications.”

The new 100MHz of spectrum lies between 3.45GHz and 3.55GHz and will be divided into 10 bands of 10MHz each that will be licensed for each of 4,060 FCC-defined geographic areas. By doing so, it’s likely bidders—particularly major carriers with deep pockets—will pick and choose which geographies they bid for. “We will auction this spectrum in smaller blocks in order to encourage broader participation from smaller providers and create more opportunities to win licenses,” said Rosenworcel.

Speeding up local approval

The FCC may also continue to work towards simplifying the deployment of 5G systems. In comparison to older wireless technology, 5G can work at higher frequencies, which means its base stations have a shorter effective range. As a result, more base stations must be deployed in order to achieve blanket coverage of the same area. That poses problems because simply upgrading existing base stations to 5G won’t provide adequate service, so providers will need to seek more local permits to deploy the new technology, a potentially lengthy process.

The FCC has previously sought to bar certain types of zoning challenges from cities, in order to let carriers deploy 5G infrastructure more quickly, but those those policies have been challenged in the courts. Adding more mid-band spectrum alleviates some of the need for particularly dense deployments, according to Leigh. “We’re not trying to hang new radios from every light post,” he said, while noting that the commission is still likely to do “whatever they can do” to help streamline the permitting process.

Addressing the digital divide

The commission’s action to open up more mid-band frequency to 5G could help address the digital divide that separates rural and low-income customers with less access to broadband services from those available to more affluent customers in more densely populated areas. The issue is more pressing because remote learning will remain for many students even after schools reopen.

“I just saw that T-Mobile expects to have 7 or 8 million home-broadband customers, presumably wireless, by 2026,” said IDC research manager Jason Leigh. “A lot of that’s going to be in areas that are underserved.”

Foreign-made 5G equipment

The FCC has also added two more names to the list of China-based companies whose gear is restricted from use in US public networks: China Unicom and Pacific Networks.

Action against those companies began nearly a year ago, with the FCC asking each vendor to show cause as to why its access to the US market should not be curtailed. New action by the FCC signals that its concern about Chinastate ownership of those vendors have not been allayed and bring the FCC one step closer to barring them as it has two other China-based vendors, Huawei and ZTE.

Leigh said the FCC is unlikely to change course on major issues in the immediate future, given the current political makeup of the commission—two Republicans and two Democrats—that resulted when former chairman Ajit Pai, a Republican, resigned in January just before the presidential inauguration. For now, Rosenworcel is acting chair.

OpenRAN

The commission is seeking public comment on the adoption of open industry standards for carrier radio-access networks, an effort known as OpenRAN. Its goal is to standardize interfaces among the several devices that make up the wireless link between 5G user devices and providers’ core networks. This would give carriers considerably more flexibility in creating and administering the physical networks that provide 5G services because they would be able to buy the devices from multiple vendors. That would open up providers’ options for customizing their deployments while keeping their costs low.

Since a key component of that idea is to allow more vendors into the RAN marketplace, the FCC’s activity on China-made equipment could have a serious impact on the development of OpenRAN in the US. The commission is clearly interested in the possibilities and Gergs thinks its call for public comment represents a subtle shift from the commissions previous stance.

“It’s going to be interesting to see the first FCC meeting on OpenRAN, because the tone around that is changing,” he said. “The messaging is becoming more positive and favorable.” It’s unlikely that the FCC will make an about-face on the use of certain vendors’ equipment in US networks, but the change in tone is encouraging, according to Gergs.

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