FCC chief wants to auction 28 GHz spectrum this November

BARCELONA, Spain—FCC Chairman Ajit Pai said he wants to hold an auction for 28 GHz spectrum this November, and then immediately after that he wants to auction spectrum in the 24 GHz band.

However, he said, there’s a catch.

“In order for us to start an auction in November, we need the U.S. Congress to pass legislation by May 13 addressing the handling of upfront payments,” Pai said in a keynote address here at the Mobile World Congress trade show. “Until now, this technical issue hasn’t impeded the FCC’s work because we’ve been busy getting spectrum we’ve already allocated ready to be auctioned. But we’re now ready to move forward with a major spectrum auction, and if we don’t get the problem fixed by May 13, our efforts to realize America’s 5G future will be delayed. I’m pleased that Congress is making bipartisan progress on this issue and am hopeful that we’ll be able to kick off a major spectrum auction in November.”

Not surprisingly, wireless industry representatives cheered Pai's announcement. "CTIA applauds Chairman Pai for scheduling a high-band spectrum auction in November, and will work with the FCC, Congress and other stakeholders to ensure the auction timeline is met," CTIA's Meredith Attwell Baker said in a statement from the lobbying group. "The wireless industry needs the certainty of a spectrum pipeline, and Chairman Pai’s commitment is a critical next step to meeting the United States’ 5G ambitions and creating millions of new jobs and billions to our economy.”

Pai’s push to auction millimeter wave spectrum comes just weeks after major carriers including T-Mobile and AT&T urged the commission to release those airwaves in an auction. For example, T-Mobile last month told the FCC it wants the agency to “immediately initiate” the process for conducting an auction of bands including 24 GHz, 28 GHz, 37 GHz, 39 GHz and 48 GHz—and begin a combined auction for those bands in 2018.

RELATED: T-Mobile presses for mmWave auction in 2018, says major carriers already acquiring significant holdings

It’s no surprise that operators like T-Mobile are clamoring for additional millimeter wave spectrum. Verizon last month closed on its acquisition of Straight Path, which held a wide range of millimeter wave spectrum licenses. According to AllNet Insights & Analytics, Verizon now owns roughly 30% of all available licensed millimeter wave spectrum—a situation that the rest of the nation’s carrier have complained about.

“In order to prevent a few select carriers from having a competitive advantage detrimental to consumers, the millimeter wave spectrum that has been allocated thus far should be made available through auction as soon as practicable,” T-Mobile said in a recent FCC filing (PDF).

Indeed, T-Mobile has already proven its interest in obtaining millimeter wave spectrum. The carrier earlier this month inked an agreement to buy roughly 1150 MHz of LMDS spectrum (28-31 GHz) in Ohio, which the carrier said it plans to use for 5G.

For his part, Pai argued that the FCC has made progress in releasing a range of spectrum bands for commercial use. He pointed to the agency’s auction of 600 MHz spectrum that ended last year, as well as its movement toward releasing the 3.5 GHz CBRS band in a shared spectrum scenario. And he said today that, in the coming months, “I intend to propose the next steps needed to make the 3.7 to 4.2 GHz band available for commercial terrestrial use.”

“One of the game-changers for 5G is that new technologies have made it possible to use millimeter wave spectrum for mobile broadband,” Pai said. “But a comprehensive spectrum strategy for 5G requires freeing up all kinds of airwaves—low-, mid-, and high-band.”