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Rural Telcos Dip Their Toes in High-band 5G Spectrum

Randy Sukow Jun 3, 2019

Seven NRTC-member rural telephone companies are investing more than $3.7 million to acquire a total of 52 high-band spectrum licenses in the FCC’s “Spectrum Frontier” Auctions. The Commission today released names of the winners of Auction 101 for 28 GHz licenses, which ended in January, and for Auction 102 for 24 GHz licenses, which formally ended last week. The Commission said before the beginning of the first auction that it would not announce any winners until both sales had completed.

The rural bidders won a small fraction of the total 5,869 licenses sold in the two auctions for a combined total of $2.7 billion in gross bids. Even as large, national wireless carriers begin 5G deployments in certain urban areas of the United States, many expect it will be years before 5G technology catches on in rural America. Much of the traffic on 5G will be internet of things (IoT) activities utilizing small cells and very wide channels in high-band (above 24 GHz) spectrum for very fast speeds. Many expect that rural 5G, as it develops, will rely more on mid-band spectrum (below 12 GHz) with longer propagation characteristics.

However, in some rural areas, there could be more immediate demand for 5G. Some rural industrial settings could benefit from the wide channels over short distances and access to IoT applications. Such deployments would likely rely heavily on fiber optic connections to remote areas for backhaul.

As expected, large national carriers dominated the competition in Auctions 101 and 102. However, AT&T and Verizon appear to have avoided competing head to head. While AT&T did not participate in the 28 GHz auction, it bid more than $982 million for 831 licenses in the 24 GHz auction. Verizon picked up only nine 24 GHz licenses but acquired 1,066 28 GHZ licenses for a combined total of $521 million. T-Mobile bid a total $842.5 million combined for 1,346 24 GHz licenses and 865 28 GHz license.

“The successful conclusion of our nation’s first two high-band flexible, mobile-use spectrum auctions is a critical step,” FCC Chairman Ajit Pai said last week a the conclusion of Auction 102  “By making more spectrum available, we’ll ensure that American consumers reap the substantial benefits that 5G innovation will bring and we’ll extend U.S. leadership in 5G.”

The FCC scheduled its next high-band 5G auction (Auction 103) to begin Dec. 10, 2019. That auction will feature licenses in the upper 37 GHz, 39 GHz, and 47 GHz bands.

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