Is there light at the end of the stalemate on resuming spectrum auctions?

Industry wants to expand 5G services, but first it needs the government to resume auctioning off bandwidth.

The question of who should get access to the so-called “lower three,” or the part of the broadband spectrum ranging from 3.1GHz to 3.45GHz, has the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) and industry in a stand-off with the Department of Defense. A new report due to be released next month could be the key to ending the stalemate.

Congressional authority to auction off parts of the broadband spectrum to industry expired in March, and while telecommunications companies and the FCC continue their push to renew the auctions, leaders in both the Pentagon and Congress say the lower three is vital to national security interests. The lower three is used for some of the Pentagon’s radar capabilities. Both sides are waiting for the results of a report due to be released in September about the risks and capabilities of the lower three.

Air Force Gen. C.Q. Brown, in a July 11 Senate Armed Services Committee confirmation hearing to become the next chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said more data needs to be gathered before any decision can be made about selling any part of the lower three, and he wants to see the report first.

“Part of the spectrum is where we have many of our capabilities across the joint force. If we had to vacate that, we’d lose that capability. “My recommendation is we should not vacate that realizing we have to still get the study before we make any decisions,” Brown said.

The study on the spectrum capabilities is being conducted by DoD and the National Telecommunications and Information Administration. It is expected to clarify some of the potential security risks and capabilities of the lower three spectrum. Industry leaders say they can’t remain competitive in the global race to expand 5G networks without more broadband.

Congress weighs in

Sen. Mike Rounds (R-S.D.) supports extending authority for the auctions, but only as long as the authority excludes the lower three.

“We cannot allow potential authorizing spectrum legislation to affect any decision-making related to the lower 3GHz band before DoD and NTIA release their study, which is expected in September,” Rounds said in a March press release about proposed legislation to resume the auctions.

Rounds said he proposed legislation to extend authority for the bandwidth auctions, but he wanted the extension to expire Sept. 30, at which time the report would be finished. So far, the Senate has not passed any extensions to the auction authority.

The FCC wants to restart the auctions as soon as possible. FCC Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel said the U.S. risks falling behind the rest of the world in 5G technology if they don’t make more of the spectrum available to industry.

“I want to get something done right now. I think that sometimes in Washington, we invest in long-term planning at the expense of making immediate progress. And I don’t want us to avoid making some progress in the here and now. So I think we [need to get] Congress to return spectrum auction authority,” Rosenworcel said at a Center for Strategic and International Studies forum on 5G and national security July 25.

Industry leaders say there is a shortage of bandwidth that inhibits their ability to expand, innovate and serve their customer base.

“Speaking for AT&T and I think for the whole industry, we certainly don’t want to see DoD lose critical capabilities to secure the country. The question is how do we balance out the needs of DoD with the needs of the industry, said Christopher Boyer, vice president for global security and technology policy at AT&T. “I think from an industry perspective, we’re seeing the wireless networks are continuing to grow, everybody’s using wireless, the capacity that’s being put over the networks is growing infinitely. The need for more spectrum is pretty glaring.”

To increase 5G networks, telecommunications companies need mid-range bandwidth which includes the lower three. The only way industry can get more bandwidth is through the FCC’s spectrum auctions.

“The mid-band spectrum is the sweet spot for 5G deployment because it has a mix of propagation and capacity,” Rosenworcel said.

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