A decade ago, the Federal Communications Commission’s National Broadband Plan determined that the nation needed to allocate an additional 500 MHz of radio spectrum to satisfy the seemingly insatiable demand for commercial mobile broadband services. Now attention turns to finding space to compete in the “Race to 5G.”
The 12 GHz band is low-hanging fruit. With mid-band spectrum hard to find, the FCC should hasten to put this spectrum into play.
Mid-Band Spectrum Gives 5G Its Kick
The FCC’s prognostication proved correct: demand for mobile data grew by a factor of 40 between 2010 and 2017, and there are no signs of slowing growth. In fact, the faster speeds and higher capacities offered by the next generation of wireless networks (5G) should steepen the growth curve. With the proverbial “Race to 5G” now in full swing, attention has shifted to finding more mid-band spectrum which gives 5G its kick.
So far, the commission’s search for more mid-band spectrum has met with some success. For instance, the FCC is holding an auction of the C-Band by year’s end, putting 280 MHz of mid-band spectrum into play.
But even with this sizable chunk of mid-band spectrum, the U.S. remains behind many advanced economies in its mid-band assignments for 5G services, including China (480 MHz) and Japan (1000 MHz). A recent report by the Government Accountability Office concluded that the lack of sufficient access to mid-band spectrum is a key challenge to deploying 5G.
Fortunately, the opportunity to move from mid-band laggard to leader lies in plain view—a 500 MHz block of prime but underutilized mid-band spectrum in the 12 GHz band. Six years ago a coalition of licensees filed a petition with the FCC to modify certain licenses in the 12 GHz band to provide two-way mobile broadband service. Should the FCC move forward with these license modifications, this additional 500 MHz of spectrum would put the U.S. near the top of the list of national assignments of mid-band spectrum.
No Controversy Around 12 GHz
Unlike prior repurposings of mid-band spectrum that faced technological, coordination, and political challenges (e.g., C-Band and Ligado), adding the 12 GHz licenses to the 5G spectrum pool is uncontroversial in nearly all respects.
Controversy arose in the C-Band, for instance, because the incumbents had not paid for and did not have exclusive rights to their spectrum. In the 12 GHz band, which is the only terrestrially licensed spectrum between 6 GHz and 24 GHz, commercial entities gained their exclusive licenses in exhaustive FCC auctions held in 2004 and 2005. Plus, the 12 GHz licenses are for terrestrial use, avoiding the troubles with repurposing spectrum assigned to satellite use.
And while incumbent licensees often resist spectrum repurposing or license modifications, two licensees hold a combined share of 91% of the 12 GHz licenses and both are on board with the modification (as are the residual, smaller licensees).
This case is also different from the Ligado repurposing as there are no interference concerns to speak of, either in-band or out-of-band, and there are no federal users in the band.
Nor is the modification all that dramatic, involving only a switch from one-way to two-way transmissions and transmission power adjustments to be used for in-demand mobile services. In fact, the FCC granted these a similar modification to a licensee already operating under such changes in New Mexico without interfering with existing satellite TV subscribers.
One Possible Wrinkle...
The only possible wrinkle to a timely license modification and use of the 12 GHz band for 5G services may be a technology that has yet to launch and has no user equipment, no subscribers and no timeline for offering broadband at all. Starlink, the speculative satellite venture of Elon Musk, has requested to reduce the orbits of thousands of proposed satellites from their currently authorized elevation, modifying their system across their entire portfolio of spectrum holdings, including in 12 GHz. This move would pollute the 12 GHz band, threatening its viability for 5G services.
But Starlink’s request is an easy rejection for the commission. First, unlike the C-Band, the 12 GHz band is not just a spectrum resource shared by multiple satellite companies; the 12 GHz band includes licensed spectrum (for terrestrial use) sold to the highest bidder at auction.
Second, Starlink has access to a whopping 15,500 MHz of spectrum (for which it has not paid a penny); it does not need the 12 GHz spectrum, a paltry 3% of its total allocation, to meet its commendable goal of providing broadband to the world’s most rural areas.
Third, the FCC already told Starlink to be mindful of the pending license modification to the licensed 12 GHz band. Amazon, who is contemplating a similar satellite service to Starlink, heeded the FCC’s warning and has laid no claim to the 12 GHz band. Just this month, both Amazon and AT&T called on the FCC reject Starlink’s request. Starlink has no legitimate claim to the band.
Finding new mid-band spectrum to facilitate the migration to 5G is challenging. As one (now former) senior federal spectrum official noted, “the era of easy spectrum decisions is over.” The ongoing squabbles between the FCC and the Department of Defense over the 3.1-3.55 GHz band (only a part of which the FCC seeks to repurpose) exposes the ongoing challenges of increasing mid-band spectrum assignments.
But if there ever was an easy spectrum win, then the 12 GHz band is it.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of The Bureau of National Affairs, Inc. or its owners.
Dr. George S. Ford is the chief economist of the Phoenix Center for Advanced Legal & Economic Public Policy Studies, a nonprofit 501(c)(3) research organization that studies broad public-policy issues related to governance, social and economic conditions, with a particular emphasis on the law and economics of the digital age.