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AT&T, U.S. Cellular execs say public auction best option for 5G spectrum

As the U.S. Federal Communications Commission weighs options for freeing up more mid-band spectrum for next-generation 5G networks, wireless industry executives at Mobile World Congress in Los Angeles stressed that a path forward is needed — and fast.

The FCC is looking at how to open up the 3.7 GHz to 4.2 GHz band, commonly referred to as the C-band, for wireless use. The band is 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. An AT&T Inc. executive and a United States Cellular Corp. executive at Mobile World Congress on Oct. 22 said they favored an FCC-led public auction process to free up more C-band spectrum.

The issue of C-band allocation is particularly knotty for AT&T, which has interests in both wireless and satellite assets, said Hank Hultquist, the company's vice president of federal regulatory affairs.

"I've spent plenty of hours ... trying to figure it out," Hultquist said during an MWC panel discussion. AT&T owns satellite TV operator DIRECTV, which has C-band authorizations. The company is also working to deploy 5G networks for its wireless customers.

Two major industry proposals have emerged for opening up the C-band. One proposal would largely preserve the current video distribution model while offering additional spectrum through private sales. The other proposal would aim to free up more spectrum through an FCC auction that involves transitioning video programmers and pay TV operators away from C-band spectrum delivery for programming backhaul to terrestrial fiber video delivery.

FCC Chairman Ajit Pai has said the agency is weighing all options but has not set a timeline for transitioning the critical spectrum for wireless use; he did acknowledge that more spectrum is needed to deploy 5G wireless technology. Major U.S. wireless operators have already begun to roll out 5G service in select markets.

"U.S. Cellular wants C-band, and we want it quickly," said Grant Spellmeyer, vice president of federal affairs and public policy at U.S. Cellular. The company would prefer an FCC auction to oversee freeing up more spectrum in the C-band, he said, adding that the process on deciding how to get more spectrum to market is already negatively impacting the wireless industry.

"We thought it'd be done by now," Spellmeyer said, noting that the uncertain timeline will impact the deployment of 5G in rural markets.

Donald Stockdale, the FCC's chief of the wireless telecommunications bureau, said during a panel discussion that the commission is studying the spectrum deployment issue and hopes to act soon.