• United States
Jon Gold
Senior Writer

FCC auctions should be a long-term boost for 5G availability

News Analysis
Sep 29, 20204 mins

Federal Communications Commission policymaking targets creation of new services by making more spectrum available

As the march towards 5G progresses, it’s apparent that more spectrum will be needed to fully enable it as a service, and the Federal Communications Commission has clearly taken the message to heart.

The FCC recently finished auctioning off priority-access licenses for Citizen’s Broadband Radio Service (CBRS) spectrum for 5G, representing 70MHz swath of new bandwidth within the 3.5GHz band. It took in $4.58 billion and is one of several such auctions in recent  years aimed at freeing up more channels for wireless data. In 2011, 2014 and 2015 the FCC auctioned off 65MHz in the low- to mid-band, between roughly 1.7GHz and 2.2GHz, for example, and the 700MHz band.

But the operative part of the spectrum now is the sub-6GHz or mid-band spectrum, in the same area as that sold off in the CBRS auction. A forthcoming C-Band auction will be the big one, according to experts, with a whopping 280MHz of spectrum on the table.

“The big money’s coming with the C-band auction,” said Jason Leigh, a research manager with IDC. “Mid-band spectrum in the U.S. is scarce— that’s why you’re seeing this great urgency.”

While the major mobile-data providers are still expected to snap up the lion’s share of the available licenses in that auction, some of the most innovative uses of the spectrum will be implemented by the enterprise, which will compete against the carriers for some of the available frequencies.

Specialist networks for IoT, asset tracking and other private networking applications are already possible via private LTE, but the maturation of 5G substantially broadens their scope, thanks to that technology’s advanced spectrum sharing, low-latency and multi-connectivity features. That, broadly, means a lot of new wire-replacement applications, including industrial automation, facilities management and more.

Reallocating spectrum means negotiation

It hasn’t been a simple matter to shift America’s spectrum priorities around, and few would know that better than former FCC chair Tom Wheeler. Much of the spectrum that the government has been pushing to reallocate to mobile broadband over the past decade was already licensed out to various stakeholders, frequently government agencies and satellite network operators.

Those stakeholders have to be moved to different parts of the spectrum, often compensated at taxpayer expense, and getting the various players to share and share alike has frequently been a complicated process, Wheeler said.

“One of the challenges the FCC faces is that the allocation of spectrum was first made from analog assumptions that have been rewritten as a result of digital technology,” he pointed out, citing the transition from analog to digital TV as an example. Where an analog TV signal took up 6MHz of spectrum and required guard bands on either side to avoid interference, four or five digital signals can be fit into that one channel.

Those assumptions have proved challenging to confront. Incumbents have publicly protested the FCC’s moves in the mid-band, arguing that insufficient precautions have been taken to avoid interference with existing services, and that changing frequency assignments often means they have to buy new equipment.

“I went through it with the [Department of Defense], with the satellite companies, and the fact of the matter is that one of the big regulatory challenges is that nobody wants to give up the nice secure position that they have based on analog assumptions,” said Wheeler. “I think you also have to pay serious consideration, but I found that claims of interference were the first refuge of people who didn’t like the threat of competition or anything else.”

The future: more services

The broader point of the opening of the mid-band to carrier and enterprise use will be potentially major advantages for U.S. businesses, regardless of the exact manner in which that spectrum is opened, according to Leigh. While the U.S. is sticking to the auction format for allocating wireless spectrum, other countries, like Germany, have set aside mid-band spectrum specifically for enterprise use.

For a given company trying to roll its own private 5G network, that could push spectrum auction prices higher. But, ultimately, the services are going to be available, whether they’re provisioned in-house or sold by a mobile carrier or vendor, as long as there’s enough spectrum available to them.

“The things you can do on the enterprise side for 5G are what’s going to drive the really futuristic stuff,” he said.