Spectrum Pipeline bill fuels licensed, unlicensed debate

  • Senators Cruz and Thune introduced the Spectrum Pipeline legislation as a way to spur job growth and the economy

  • CTIA welcomed the move, saying it will support Americans’ growing wireless data use

  • New America’s Michael Calabrese called the bill “dead on arrival” and “totally unbalanced,” with far more spectrum designated for licensed use vs. unlicensed

A lot of folks looking for more licensed wireless spectrum were happy to hear that Republican Senators Ted Cruz (Texas) and John Thune (South Dakota) today unveiled legislation to expand commercial access to mid-band spectrum. But for those in the unlicensed community? Not so much. 

Besides renewing the FCC’s auction authority, the Spectrum Pipeline Act of 2024 would require the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) to identify at least 2,500 megahertz of mid-band spectrum that can be reallocated from federal use to non-federal or shared use in the next five years.

It also calls for the FCC to auction at least 1,250 megahertz of spectrum between 1.3 and 13.2 GHz for full-power commercial wireless services, including 5G, within six years, and at least 600 megahertz within three years.  

Naturally, CTIA, the lobbying organization for big wireless carriers, appreciates the senators’ leadership in this arena.

“We look forward to working with Congress on legislation that will ensure the wireless industry can continue to build wireless networks that offer competitive consumer home broadband options, support cutting-edge innovation, and help the U.S. lead the world in wireless,” CTIA President and CEO Meredith Attwell Baker said in a statement.

Verizon Federal Government Relations and Public Affairs SVP Robert Fisher said Verizon’s own Consumer Connections report found that mobile traffic has skyrocketed by 129% in the last five years.

“A spectrum pipeline is needed to meet consumers’ growing demand for bandwidth and fuel a better connected future,” Fisher said in a statement.

Dallas-based AT&T also released a statement applauding the efforts of Senator Cruz and his colleagues. Republican Senator Marsha Blackburn of Tennessee is an original co-sponsor of the Spectrum Pipeline Act of 2024.

“Importantly, this bill allocates 1250 megahertz of licensed spectrum for mobile broadband services – a much-needed influx of this crucial resource that is necessary to meet America’s insatiable demand for wireless connectivity,” said Mike Ferguson, AT&T EVP of Federal Legislative Relations. “We’re eager to continue working with lawmakers in both chambers and on both sides of the aisle – as well as the administration – to increase access to spectrum and advance U.S. economic competitiveness and security.”

Of course, the need to work with lawmakers “on both sides of the aisle” is key. This latest effort is being led by the Republican minority, and there is no Democrat attached to it. “Minorities don’t pass bills,” noted industry analyst Roger Entner of Recon Analytics.

On the upside, he said the legislation has “something for both sides,” in the sense that it includes spectrum for full-power commercial wireless services and at least 125 megahertz for unlicensed spectrum. 

“It’s a step in the right direction,” Entner said. “This is an attempt to get things going, with a pretty reasonable offer or starting point.”  

'Dead on arrival'

Despite the positive statements from major network operators, those who advocate for more unlicensed spectrum versus licensed – don’t think the bill is going anywhere.

“This bill is dead on arrival, not only with Democrats, but also with some Republicans on Senate Armed Services Committee,” said Michael Calabrese, director of the Wireless Future Project at New America’s Open Technology Institute, in an email to Fierce.

“A mandate to auction 1,250 megahertz within five years necessarily presupposes that the Pentagon is going to not just share, but clear off a majority of the spectrum they currently rely on in the lower 3 GHz and 7 to 8 GHz bands. That would be a backdoor maneuver to undermine the studies of those same bands in President Biden’s National Spectrum Strategy," he added.

In addition, Calabrese said the "spectrum pipeline" is “totally unbalanced,” mandating auctions of exclusive licenses for 10 times as much spectrum as the “de minimus 125 megahertz” required for unlicensed use and next generation Wi-Fi.

“That is completely out of whack considering that today roughly 80 percent of all mobile device data traffic uses Wi-Fi, not mobile carrier spectrum. And, with 5G floundering, the three big mobile carriers have so much surplus spectrum they are using it deploy fixed wireless service,” he said.