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Competing 5G spectrum plans take center stage as FCC moves toward decision


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Competing 5G spectrum plans take center stage as FCC moves toward decision

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As the clock ticks down on an informal timeline for a decision from the U.S. Federal Communications Commission on how to open up crucial 5G spectrum, competing industry interests continue to clash over how to free it up.

The primary issue is what the commission should do with the 3.7 GHz to 4.2 GHz band, commonly referred to as the C-band. The band is currently allocated in the U.S. for fixed-satellite service or space-to-Earth transmissions, such as the satellite delivery of cable and broadcast network programming to TV stations, radio services and cable facilities. However, the FCC is looking at opening it up for wireless use.

Two rival industry proposals have emerged in comments submitted to the FCC. One, submitted by the C-Band Alliance — originally formed by four satellite operators that provide the vast majority of C-band satellite services in the U.S.— would largely preserve the existing video distribution model but would make up to 200 MHz of C-band spectrum available through secondary sales. The other, dubbed the 5G Plus Plan, comes from a coalition that includes the cable trade group ACA Connects - America's Communications Association; Charter Communications Inc.; and the Competitive Carriers Association, a group that represents rural, regional and national telecom operators. By transitioning to fiber, the plan proposes freeing up at least 370 MHz of C-band spectrum, which would then be sold through an FCC-led auction.

During a Sept. 24 speech, FCC Chairman Ajit Pai said he was "optimistic" that the commission would have results to show on this issue in the fall.

At an Oct. 8 conference on C-band hosted by The Capitol Forum, a news and legal analysis group, representatives from groups behind both of the plans made their case for why they believe the FCC should adopt their respective plans.

Peter Pitsch, head of advocacy and government affairs for the C-Band Alliance, said his group's proposal would "clear spectrum much more quickly than all the alternatives." Pitsch also argued that the fiber transition outlined in the 5G Plus Plan would be problematic.

"The cost was greater and the uncertainty was greater," he said of a possible fiber solution.

However, Ross Lieberman, senior vice president for government affairs for ACA Connects, argued that the 5G Plus Plan "ensures that there is fairness and transparency to the process" by having an FCC-led auction. Lieberman also defended the proposed fiber solution in the 5G Plus Plan and argued that it was a necessity for future wireless services.

"You can't have wireless service without the fiber backbone that is necessary to bring it onto the network," he said.

Colleen King, vice president of regulatory affairs for Charter, also argued in favor of the 5G Plus Plan, saying that fiber will "future proof" the company's video system.

"As you move to 4K and 8K and beyond and the capacity that's going to require, fiber is really what's going to be necessary in the future and this provides a path to do that," she said.

For his part, Patrick McFadden, associate general counsel at the National Association of Broadcasters, said the C-band is unmatched in terms of its ubiquity and reliability and that it is important to maintain sufficient spectrum in the band to allow the continued delivery of content services.

Two of the largest wireless carriers, Verizon Communications Inc. and T-Mobile US Inc. were also at odds over whether a public or private auction would be best.

Patrick Welsh, assistant vice president for wireless policy development at Verizon, said the company supports a private auction because a secondary market transaction can inject spectrum into the market faster than a public auction. However, Steve Sharkey, vice president of government affairs for technology and engineering policy at T-Mobile, said a private auction without significant FCC oversight "opens itself up to manipulation."

Speaking at the conference, FCC Commissioner Michael O'Rielly appeared to poke holes in both proposals.

O'Rielly said he was not bothered by the idea of a private auction and added that he was concerned about how long it would take for the FCC to run an auction.

He also said he thinks the landing spot for the amount of spectrum that should be made available is "somewhere around 300 [MHz]," and added that "anyone who is probably not there is probably delusional."

Finally, O'Rielly appeared to reject the suggestion that immediate FCC action is a necessity, saying that if the FCC were to take until January to act "the world would not end." He also said he would not be concerned if "some of the pieces" in the debate were addressed in a second FCC item, which could come many months down the road.