NTIA’s spectrum implementation plan elicits mostly praise

  • The Biden Administration released its National Spectrum Strategy Implementation Plan

  • The plan tees up studies for the lower 3 GHz and 7-8 GHz bands

  • Everyone is eager to see more spectrum in the pipeline but the FCC currently has no auction authority

Perhaps in the spirit of “don’t bite the hand that feeds you,” spectrum-hungry groups released mostly positive statements after the Biden Administration unveiled its National Spectrum Strategy Implementation Plan on Tuesday.

The plan, which is a public roadmap to meet the goals of the previously outlined National Spectrum Strategy, sets up timelines for further study on 2,786 megahertz of spectrum. That includes studying the potential for repacking, compression and relocation of airborne radars and other federal users in the lower 3 GHz to make way for commercial use.

The lower 3 GHz band is of particular interest because wireless carriers have their eyes on it but it’s occupied by the Department of Defense (DoD). Other promising mid-band spectrum for wireless carriers is the 7-8 GHz band, but that’s also appealing to cable and Wi-Fi camps.

Quick takes

Similar to some other groups, CTIA said it’s encouraged by the implementation plan. “We are pleased to see the Administration restore NTIA leadership over spectrum studies, right the course on the lower 3 GHz band, and set up a critical review of the 7/8 GHz band,” said CTIA President and CEO Meredith Attwell Baker in a statement.

CTIA also signaled a sense of urgency. “It is vital that the Administration now move quickly to start these studies as we need decisive action on reallocating spectrum to secure our global economic competitiveness and innovation leadership,” Baker added.

Some of the harshest words about the Spectrum Implementation Plan came from Republican FCC Commissioner Brendan Carr. He said the Biden Administration’s plan amounts to “kicking the can down the road” when the U.S. sorely needs more licensed mid-band spectrum for commercial use to keep pace with consumer demand and geopolitical rivals.

With studies on the 3.1-3.45 GHz and 7.125-8.4 GHz bands due for completion in October 2026, that means neither band is likely to see the light of day until 2028 at the earliest. He pointed to his “actual spectrum plan” that he released in March of 2021 and applauded the legislative efforts by Senators Ted Cruz, John Thune and Masha Blackburn introduced earlier this week.

Wi-Fi and 7-8 GHz

WifiForward, which represents the likes of Charter Communications, Comcast, Google, Amazon, Microsoft, Public Knowledge and others, urged NTIA to move as quickly as possible to allow coexistence for Wi-Fi and existing federal users in the 7.125-8.4 GHz band.

The types of incumbents that are in the 7-8 GHz band are in many cases identical to the types of incumbents that already are coexisting with Wi-Fi in the 6 GHz band, said Mary Brown, an advisor to WifiForward and former Cisco executive.

“We see a tremendous opportunity for federal agencies to take a look, not at just the FCC rules but the track record over the last four years and consider Wi-Fi as an option for coexistence in the 7-8 GHz band,” she told Fierce.

The ITU currently is studying whether the 7-8 GHz band could be used for mobile services and since incumbents in the band, particularly in the U.S. and Europe, skew to military/defense users, it might be difficult for them to coexist with 5G and/or it may be extremely expensive to move them. Therefore, “it makes sense to consider Wi-Fi” as well as 5G, she said.

No easy way

Time is of the essence so it’s good news there is a plan in place, “but nothing is easy here,” said Lynnette Luna, senior research analyst at S&P Global.

For the lower 3 GHz band, the military is not keen on moving and really favors spectrum sharing, while the mobile industry is opposed to spectrum sharing and prefers to have unfettered access.

“The industry likes to point to CBRS as an example that does not benefit mobile operators because of power limits in place to avoid interference. Congress wants to see some auctions as carriers are willing to pay exorbitantly for exclusive use,” she said, noting that the CBRS auction generated about $4.5 billion while the C-band auction, which sold exclusive licenses, brought in a whopping $81 billion.

Interestingly, she has seen the DoD acquiesce a bit and say that it would consider moving some of its radar operations off the lower 3 GHz band to accommodate 5G operations. However, “it’s unclear how much spectrum that is. It really is about weighing commercial progress and leadership against national security,” she said.