FCC has Spectrum Policy Right

RE: Subcommittee on Communications, Technology, Innovation, and the Internet hearing: The State of U.S. Spectrum Policy

Dear Senators,

Ahead of the Subcommittee on Communications, Technology, Innovation, and the Internet hearing on the state of U.S. spectrum policy, I would like to offer comments supporting the Federal Communications Commission’s 5G FAST Plan led by Chairman Ajit Pai, with a particular focus on the C-Band and other vital mid-band spectrum.

The United States is far behind other countries in licensed mid-band spectrum availability. China, Japan, South Korea, Canada, and the U.K. each have twice as much available mid-band spectrum compared to the U.S. In the 3.3-3.6 GHz range, we have no spectrum at all. This is a key area for licensed spectrum availability, and by quickly making lower 3 GHz band available for commercial 5G operations, the U.S. would become a “leading benchmark” country in this area.

5G deployment is crucial to our economic health and continued leadership in innovation. Both the Application and Gig Economies, which created countless flexible work opportunities for Americans while lowering the cost of doing business, were made possible by being the first movers on the transition from 3G to 4G. Similarly, 5G will enable new and innovative services to come to market. Innovation means economic growth, new jobs, and better services for consumers.

Central to the conversation on spectrum policy is C-band, a mid-band spectrum that will be vital to the buildout of 5G in the United States. The Commission has responded with a bold plan for transitioning mid-band spectrum to 5G usage through C-band auctions.

Mid-band spectrum has a combination of capacity and range that makes it ideal for 5G networks; Chairman Pai calls the C-band the “goldilocks zone.” Thanks to the tireless work of the FCC, the US is a leader in low-band and high-band spectrum. But we need to double our mid-band to keep pace with China, Japan, and South Korea.

Fortunately, the incumbents within the C-Band, primarily satellite companies, realized that they did not need the entire band to continue providing the services they currently use it for, and came forward willing to return the spectrum. Therefore, the primary obstacle to repurposing portions of the C-Band has been the issue of compensation for the incumbents operating within it. Be sure that any other company or government agency is carefully watching this process to see how they might be treated should they come forward with underutilized spectrum.

Clearing the C-Band is a delicate balancing act. As is typical of spectrum auctions and transitions, each band has its own particular characteristics, making no two band processes alike. It is clear that the C-Band is vital to 5G deployment and that the faster the Band is made available, the more value and benefits Americans will reap.

As FCC Commissioner Michael O’Rielly stated, delaying the C-band public auction poses a serious national security risk. China has already pledged to make the C-band spectrum available for their wireless systems, giving them an alarming advantage in the development of the high-tech weaponry that is going to be essential to national defense in the coming years.

Throughout the C-Band process, the FCC has made it clear they want incumbents to receive fair, not exorbitant, compensation in order to meet the primary value driver – speed. Chairman Pai’s proposal calls for the incumbents to receive up to $9.7 billion in “accelerated relocation payments.” These payments will be made in full by the winning bidders. But, in order for the incumbents to receive the full amount, the incumbents will be expected to meet certain deadlines to help expediate the process.

The transition to 5G is projected to create 1.3 million jobs and boost the economy by $274 billion. It will also allow us to speed ahead of our international adversaries. Fortunately, the FCC has taken initiative in the last year by auctioning off C-band spectrum so that it can be transitioned from satellite to 5G use. The pandemic has resulted in some slight delays, but the FCC continues to push ahead with its plan; auctions for CBRS spectrum scheduled for June were only pushed back one month.

Yet, there is still more to be done.

The continually increasing demand for licensed and unlicensed spectrum has put considerable pressure on the FCC and other agencies that hold spectrum to look for new efficiencies, reallocate where reasonable, and audit their uses of the spectrum. Since the amount of commercially allotted spectrum is considerably smaller than the amount of spectrum allotted to government users, that takes some creative planning. Each band has its own special characteristics and roadblocks to overcome in order to enter the market effectively. These roadblocks and mitigation characteristics will only become more difficult as the commercial sector battles for an ever-decreasing amount of the spectrum pie.

In January of 2020, House Energy and Commerce Chairman Frank Pallone and Ranking Member Greg Walden expressed concerns with what they described as “inefficient management and chaotic processes” at the NTIA. The Congressmen asked the GAO to perform a comprehensive review of the NTIA’s policies on federal spectrum management.

The GAO has not formally reviewed the NTIA’s spectrum policies since 2011, when it released a report titled Spectrum Management: NTIA Planning and Processes Need Strengthening to Promote the Efficient Use of Spectrum by Federal Agencies. In that report, the GAO wrote, “NTIA’s current processes provide limited assurance that federal spectrum use is evaluated from a governmentwide perspective to ensure that decisions will meet the current and future needs of the agencies, as well as the federal government as a whole.”

We saw a serious breakdown in process around spectrum issues including the National Defense Authorization Act, the 24 GHz FCC auction, and the 2.5 GHz FCC docket, all of which took place in 2019. The FCC has given agencies more than 10 years to respond to these issues, such as Ligado, but often the agencies appear intransigent.

It is understandable that an agency would not want to let go of a valuable asset. But if agencies are unwilling to audit the use and value of their spectrum, that puts us all in a very difficult position. Spectrum assets should appear as a line item on an agency’s budget. If agencies finally have to pay for such a valuable resource, perhaps they will find more swaths of spectrum they do not need or move with urgency to deploy new technologies rather than allowing spectrum bands to lie fallow for 20 years.

In order to deploy 5G, we need licensed mid-band spectrum, particularly in the lower 3 GHz band. However, this is not the end of spectrum demand. We need all agencies to come together with a plan to release spectrum to commercial users and innovators.

Connectivity is increasingly important for national security and prosperity. The FCC should be applauded for its foresight in clearing spectrum for commercial use. Thank you for the opportunity to offer comments. Should you have any further questions, I can be reached at [email protected].


Katie McAuliffe
Executive Director
Digital Liberty

Photo Credit: ttarasiuk