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FCC auction authority deadline, rollout delays among top 5G concerns

At a time when wireless carriers are demanding more and more mid-band spectrum for their next-generation networks, Congress is facing a looming deadline to renew the Federal Communications Commission's spectrum auction authority.

"The stakes could not be higher. Failure to replenish the commercial spectrum pipeline risks the United States falling behind our counterparts across the globe, including China, in producing cutting-edge consumer innovations and enhancing our national security capabilities," Energy and Commerce Chairman Frank Pallone Jr., D-N.J., said during a House Subcommittee on Communications and Technology hearing March 16.

At the hearing, lawmakers discussed the auction authority renewal deadline, as well as other topics impacting U.S. leadership in 5G, including deployment delays and the ongoing chip shortage.

FCC auction authority renewal

The FCC may lose the power to carry out future spectrum auctions, a right it has had since 1994, unless Congress renews that authority before Sept. 30.

If Congress fails to act or chooses to revoke the FCC's current power, the FCC will no longer have the authority to hold spectrum auctions, grant spectrum licenses related to those auctions or do other auction work that relies on this authority, with some limited exceptions. Spectrum auctions have raised $200 billion in federal revenue.

"U.S. innovation is ... fueled by efficient spectrum allocation from auctions. Spectrum availability acts like a magnet for network research and development, and translates into a strong hand for US intellectual property," Cisco Systems Inc. Senior Director of Government Affairs Mary Brown wrote in testimony.

Brown said the FCC's auction authority is an essential element of 5G, and eventually 6G, deployment. Revoking the FCC's power now will only stall progress, she said.

Pallone added that the U.S. must act now, well before the next FCC mid-band auction, which is scheduled for July. Mid-band spectrum is considered essential for 5G, combining fast speeds and a wide range.

Rollout delays

During the hearing, telecommunications leaders also discussed how any delays in rolling out spectrum impact business. Earlier this year, the rollout of C-band spectrum, part of the mid-band, was repeatedly delayed due to concerns from the Federal Aviation Administration that wireless operations in the band would interfere with aviation equipment.

"Simply put, smaller carriers cannot afford to spend limited capital on spectrum licenses if we cannot put them to use according to service rules established ahead of the auction," said Von Todd, chief executive of corporate strategy and analytics at Horry Telephone Cooperative, a South Carolina-based broadband provider. "To confidently participate in future auctions, we must have the certainty that we can put spectrum to use as anticipated."

Todd argued that all of the inefficiencies and delays to rollout 5G disproportionately impact rural Americans and operators, who are typically last to receive access to technologies.

He urged Congress and the FCC to maintain a sufficient supply of spectrum in low-, mid- and high-band ranges to allow smaller carriers to meaningfully participate in auctions with an opportunity to gain access to new spectrum.

"While we may not yet know the must-have applications for 5G and beyond, or the bandwidth required to support them, we do know that more spectrum will be needed and that we do not want to be left behind, especially in rural areas that stand to benefit from new innovations most," Todd wrote.

Supply chain shortages

The panel also addressed the pandemic-induced global semiconductor shortage, which has left device-makers, auto manufacturers and spectrum operators out of options.

Intel Corp. Global Executive Director Jayne Stancavage addressed the CHIPS For America Act, which was signed in 2021 to authorize new semiconductor manufacturing in the U.S. Stancavage said the act was a successful first step, but the U.S. government must continue investing in domestic semiconductor production to keep up with planned 5G deployment.

"Federal investment is urgently needed to reverse this erosion by leveling the playing field for America's semiconductor industry," Stancavage wrote in her testimony.