The FCC this morning by a 3-2 vote changed the rules for the 2.5 GHz Educational Broadband Service (EBS) band to give commercial internet providers more immediate access to mid-band spectrum for 5G. An auction for what Chairman Ajit Pai called “the single largest contiguous swath of mid-band spectrum below 3 GHz in the entire country” could begin in 2020. The Commission also established bidding procedures for an incentive auction (Auction 103) for 5G operation in the Upper 37 GHz, 39 GHz, and 47 GHz millimeter bands, set to begin Dec. 10.
But the more noticeable event was the outbreak of partisan bickering, which is comparatively rare during FCC meetings. Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel in recent months has been the primary critic of the FCC’s decision to clear high-band, millimeter spectrum for 5G before mid-band, citing the number of countries that are starting with mid-band first.
“We need mid-band spectrum. And it's especially important for rural America where the challenging economics of service presently do not support the high cost of high-band infrastructure. The fact is we have ceded international leadership when it comes to 5G because of this dearth of mid band spectrum,” Rosenworcel said today before voting against the Auction 103 item, which passed by a 4-1 margin.
The ironic thing was that a few minutes before, Rosenworcel had voted “dissenting in part” to the proposal to speed the start of the 2.5 GHz auction. “You can't demand action on mid-band spectrum and then and then vote against an auction next year that would make 2.5 GHz spectrum available for commercial use,” Pai said. “The inescapable inference is your that real commitment is to political gamesmanship, not actual progress on mid-band spectrum. Fortunately, this agency is focused on the prize, not on politics.”
The 2.5 GHz order, which passed with the three Republican commissioners voting “aye” and Commissioner Geoffrey Starks joining Rosenworcel’s “dissenting in part,” removes current restrictions on commercial companies holding EBS licenses and sets up an “overlay auction” of 2.5 GHz licenses the FCC currently holds.
Dating back to 1963, the band has been reserved for educational organizations, first as a place for TV broadcasting and reorganized in 2004 as a band for educational broadband uses. Despite a few educational institutions that have made use of the band, all sides agree it has been badly underutilized. In some areas the 2.5 GHz frequencies are unused and in others the licensees lease capacity to commercial users.
“I think instead of this uninspired overlay auction; we should be doing something bold. We should be doing something creative,” Rosenworcel said. She proposed that instead of abandoning the band’s educational mission, the Commission should organize an incentive auction, encouraging current licensees to turn in their licenses for a percentage of auction revenue. The FCC’s one earlier incentive auction for former TV broadcast spectrum ended in March 2017 with the government raising nearly $8 billion for 1,525 licenses and using part of the revenue to finance the FirstNet nationwide broadband network for first responders. Rosenworcel called for an EBS auction to partially fund programs to solve the rural “homework gap.”
Pai responded that Rosenworcel did not reveal her incentive auction idea until yesterday (July 9) and offered no details about how to run it. The first incentive auction took a year to complete after years of planning. “It would delay an auction of this key mid-band spectrum by several years, according to our career staff, thus substantially slowing down progress on 5G for this country. I believe we need to make it a priority to auction mid-band airwaves right now,” Pai said. He added that he expected an auction for 3.5 GHz mid-band spectrum in the Citizens Band Radio Service (CBRS) also could begin next year.