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FCC chairman leaves 5G mid-band spectrum reallocation time frame unclear

At a March 21 policy summit in Washington, D.C., U.S. Federal Communications Commission Chairman Ajit Pai sought to relieve concerns from small and midsize communications companies about the commission's approach to mid-band spectrum reallocation. He also outlined the agency's work on closing the digital divide and explained why he decided to stick around as FCC chairman.

Mid-band spectrum reallocation

The issue of mid-band spectrum reallocation — particularly in the 3.7 to 4.2 GHz band, known as the C-band — has been a popular topic at the summit this week, which was hosted by ACA - America's Communications Association, a trade group representing over 700 small and midsize independent companies that provide broadband, phone and video services.

The FCC is currently seeking ways to free up spectrum and expand flexible use in the band for 5G services, which has historically been allocated in the U.S. for either fixed-satellite service or space-to-Earth transmissions. Specifically, the spectrum is used for the satellite delivery of cable and broadcast network programming to TV stations, radio services and cable facilities.

Pai acknowledged concerns that some small and midsize operators have about expanding the band for 5G use.

"We do understand that there are a number of people, especially some broadcasters, small cable operators and others, who rely on that spectrum as well for the delivering of critical services," said Pai.

On March 20, Bob Gessner, who serves as president of MCTV, a midsize cable operator, told reporters that he is concerned about the potential impact spectrum reallocation in the band could have, specifically regarding picture quality issues with compressed bandwidth and higher costs if operators are forced to move to terrestrial fiber delivery rather than satellite.

Pai said that the commission is "vigorously" debating the issues and hopes to reach a resolution at some point in the future. "It's important for us to make the right decision, not to make a right now decision," he said.

Republican FCC Commissioner Michael O'Rielly also addressed concerns about potential impacts on small and midsize companies on March 20, when he told the group that if they do not get greedy or seek unfair enrichment in the reallocation process, their concerns will be "fully addressed."

One of the possible ways that the FCC is considering opening up the band for flexible use is through an auction.

After speaking at the summit, Pai said he could not comment on a particular time frame for either a mid-band spectrum auction or when the commission will decide what to offer for flexible use in the C-band altogether.

Closing the digital divide

As part of its efforts to close the digital divide, the FCC uses federal programs to help expand access to high-speed internet and communications services in remote and hard-to-reach parts of the country.

The commission's Universal Service Fund has a range of programs aimed at helping advance this goal, including the Connect America Fund, which has an auction-based support mechanism. In August 2018, the commission finished its Connect America Fund Phase II auction, where over 100 bidders were awarded nearly $1.5 billion over 10 years to provide broadband and voice services in underserved and unserved areas.

Speaking at the policy summit, Pai outlined the commission's thinking on how it is considering its next steps as it wraps up the distribution of funds associated with the Connect America Fund Phase II auction.

"We haven't yet made any decisions on that," he said at the summit. "But what I can tell you is that I personally know there are many parts of the country that are off the grid, so to speak. We want to make sure that as we take those next steps, we include you as part of the conversation because we recognize that technological neutrality is important," he told operators at the summit.

Staying on as chairman

In late 2018, Pai told reporters that he intends to serve as chairman for the next two years. The question had come up ahead of the 2018 midterm elections given that Democratic control of the U.S. House of Representatives would lead to increased oversight for the Republican-led FCC.

At the summit, Pai said the decision was largely driven by his desire to finish executing the agenda he wants to implement.

"The job isn't done," said Pai, who added that the commission's top priorities — closing the digital divide, extending digital opportunity and modernizing regulations — have not yet been accomplished. "There's so much more that we want to do."