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FCC chair says agency still weighing competing 5G spectrum proposals

Federal Communications Commission Chairman Ajit Pai, speaking at an Oct. 17 congressional hearing, offered little fresh insight on how to open up the spectrum needed for next-generation wireless networks, though he stressed that the effort should benefit federal taxpayers.

As wireless carriers move to roll out next-generation 5G networks and services, the FCC is weighing how to free up spectrum in the 3.7 GHz to 4.2 GHz band, commonly referred to as the C-band. 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. Two competing industry proposals have emerged, and the FCC may choose elements of either or decide on a different option.

A coalition of satellite operators that provide the majority of C-band satellite services in the U.S. is pushing to preserve the existing video distribution model while opening up as much as 200 MHz of C-band spectrum to the wireless industry through private sales. A rival proposal, from a coalition that includes representatives from the cable and telecom industries, advocates for transitioning some video distribution to fiber networks from C-band spectrum. This would free up at least 370 MHz to sell through a public, FCC-led auction.

Pai did not say which proposal he favored. But he said the agency must pursue a solution that makes a significant amount of the C-band available quickly for wireless use while preserving services currently delivered on the C-band and generating taxpayer revenue.

The chairman of the subcommittee hosting the hearing, Sen. John Kennedy, R-La., repeatedly urged Pai to pursue a public auction.

"Luxembourg shouldn't reap these profits," he said. "The American taxpayer should." Two of the satellite companies advocating to preserve the current video distribution model and free up spectrum via private sales, SES SA and Intelsat SA, are headquartered in Luxembourg.

Kennedy also said that as far as he could tell, the only benefit to a private auction is that advocates claim it could bring spectrum to the market faster. He encouraged Pai to commit to a time frame of 2 to 3 years for a public auction to counteract the supposed advantage of a private sale. Failing that, the agency should reorganize and hire staffers who could accomplish it.

"If C-Band [Alliance] can do it, then we can do it,'" Kennedy said.

Pai did not commit to an estimated time frame for a public auction beyond several years.

Kennedy said he is considering holding a second hearing on C-band spectrum focused on asking FCC auction staffers why public auctions take so long to complete.