C-Band Auction Agreement Proves Elusive

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Witnesses discussed aspects of the fight to open up C-band to wireless use before Congress on Tuesday. Incumbent satellite companies on the band have proposed that the FCC let them sell the spectrum privately, while cablecos, Google, and some wireless providers are lobbying for an FCC-run auction. 

Earlier in the day, FCC Office of Engineering and Technology Chief Julius Knapp said Chairman Ajit Pai hopes to have some aspects of the C-band proceeding settled this fall. However, while stakeholders are talking with each other, not much conviviality was displayed Tuesday among those who use the spectrum now, and those who want to.

“Without competitive policies to foster competition among providers, rural areas will be left behind,” Competitive Carriers Association SVP Legislative Affairs Tim Donovan told members of the House Energy and Commerce telecom subcommittee. “C-band presents a unique and immediate opportunity for wireless use.” 

Peter Pitsch is the Head of Advocacy and Government Relations for the C-Band Alliance, comprised of Intelsat, SES, Eutelsat and Telesat. “All of the majority of TV and radio networks rely on C-band for satellite program delivery. Each of the satellite companies has the non-exclusive right to use the entire 500 MHz band,” said Pitsch. The C-Band Alliance proposal would assign and clear 200 MHz of the band within 36 months of FCC authorization, he added. “That should lead to spectrum assignments in the first half of 2020.” 

In addition, Pitsch said: “Our proposal is the only one that protects existing satellite services. We have the expertise and will assume costs” of moving some of the incumbents and making them whole, he explained while adding, “other proposals are not timely or suitable. Our proposal is fair. CBA members are taking a substantial [financial] risk to break the 5G spectrum logjam.”

The public versus private spectrum auction is a huge sticking point, according to stakeholders. Alternatives with a public auction, given how long it usually takes the FCC to conduct an auction, Pitsch said, could have a “crucial impact” on America’s ability to lead in 5G. The U.K. Japan, Italy and other countries already have more mid-band spectrum designated for 5G or will have by 2020.

CCA’s Donovan said members don’t have transparency with a private auction rather than an FCC-conducted public auction. “We need to ensure proceeds from auction benefits taxpayers.”

Michael Calabrese is Director of the Wireless Future Project, part of the Open Technology Institute at public interest group New America. “We need to reallocate a large portion of C-band to enable rural use and to protect existing users from harmful interference. We’re concerned about pleas for private auction to transfer some $3 billion to foreign entities,” he said, referring to some of the satellite companies. 

Calabrese called a private auction “a terrible precedent. Like with the broadcasters, we can’t be [unnecessarily] paying off all these incumbents. When the TV bands were consolidated, Congress passed legislation to ensure TV stations [while compensated] received no windfall,” he said, referring to the 600 MHz incentive auction. The FCC can consolidate current users onto a smaller portion of the band, he explained.

CTIA Scott Bergman said its members are divided on the auction question, but agree it’s the right place to focus on.

Asked by subcommittee Chair Rep. Mike Doyle (D-PA), if clearing 200 MHz of the C-band is enough, Donavan replied, carriers need 600 MHz. “If you free up 180 MHz, that’s three licenses.”

CCA members also need fiber broadband access for backhaul, he said. Pitsch said CBA member customers, like Disney, Cox and NPR, say fiber is too expensive and won’t work for their needs.

Doyle asked if a private auction would be legal; Pitsch assured him it is, and emphasized there would be no problem with follow-up by C-band companies.

By Leslie Stimson, Inside Towers Washington Bureau Chief

July 17, 2019                         

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