U.S. to free up 100 MHz of mid-band spectrum for 5G

The White House on Monday announced plans to make 100-megahertz of key mid-band spectrum between 3.45-3.55 GHz available for commercial 5G deployments.

Government agencies have been evaluating ways to share the 3.1-3.55 GHz band with commercial users, while protecting federal military operations that already occupy the band.

Last month, in a report to Congress the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) determined that the 3.45-3.55 GHz portion was the most viable for near-term sharing, including power levels desired by the wireless industry.  

However, today’s announcement appeared to signal more concrete movement on the band for commercial users.

According to Reuters, White House advisor and U.S. Chief Technology Officer Michael Kratsios told reporters that the FCC will be able to auction the spectrum starting in December 2021 and it could be used as soon as the summer of 2022.

“Secure 5G networks will absolutely be a vital link to America’s prosperity and national security in the 21st century,” U.S. President Donald Trump said in a White House statement about the decision, made in collaboration with the Department of Defense.

RELATED: NTIA: 3.45-3.55 GHz ‘good candidate’ for mid-band sharing

The wireless industry has been vocal about the need for more mid-band spectrum to compete in 5G. That’s in part because mid-band strikes a balance in delivering coverage and capacity, and also aligns with spectrum other countries are using for 5G.

In contrast, U.S. 5G auctions have largely focused on high-band millimeter wave spectrum, which offers massive capacity but the tradeoff of limited coverage with signals that don’t penetrate well and are easily obstructed. Operators including AT&T and T-Mobile already launched 5G services using low-band spectrum for nationwide coverage. Verizon’s focused 5G deployments on mmWave, but has signaled plans to launch broader 5G coverage on low-band, using dynamic spectrum sharing (DSS) technology.  

RELATED: Verizon, T-Mobile both rank best and worst among global 5G operators

The FCC is in the middle of an auction for 70-megahertz of priority access licenses (PALs) in the shared 3.5 GHz CBRS band, which topped $3 billion in gross proceeds Monday afternoon. There’s 150-megahertz available for commercial use within the CBRS band’s unique three-tier sharing paradigm that protects federal incumbents. That includes 80 MHz already available for general authorized access (GAA) use. An auction for 280-megahertz of licensed C-band spectrum is slated for December.

Wireless groups CTIA, the Wireless Internet Service Providers Association (WISPA), and 5G Americas applauded today’s announcement.

“Opening up this critical block of mid-band spectrum for full power commercial operations will enhance U.S. competitiveness in the 5G ecosystem,” said CTIA President and CEO Meredith Attwell Baker in a statement.

WISPA President and CEO Claude Aiken said in a statement that the group was "greatly encouraged" by the news.

“Spectrum is finite, and it must be shared if Americans are to gain the full benefits of wireless broadband. The CBRS band shows that a viable framework can be employed to do so – one which both protects national security and allows for commercial use. We want to thank all involved for working through the numerous complex technical arrangements to make available this valuable mid-band spectrum,” stated Aiken.

FCC Chairman Ajit Pai also commended President Trump and the DoD, and thanked the FCC for its work to help create a framework for 5G services in the band.

“This is a key milestone in securing United States leadership in 5G,” Pai stated, adding “The FCC looks forward to moving quickly to adopt service rules for the 3.45 GHz band and then hold an auction to bring this prime mid-band spectrum to market.”

Industry groups seemed pleased to see government action to spur another mid-band spectrum auction. Chris Pearson, president of 5G Americas, said in a statement that the organization was encouraged the White House had urged the FCC to issue a proposed rulemaking as soon as possible so that an auction could take place next year.

RELATED: 5G Americas: U.S. needs mid-band spectrum, stat

“We are pleased that the White House has led the Department of Defense and the National Telecommunications and Information Administration to support commercial access in the upper 100 MHz of the 3.1-3.55 GHz band, at full commercial power. Mid-band spectrum, including 3.45-3.55 GHz, is important for the deployment of 5G in the United States,” Pearson stated, adding that many countries globally have agreed on spectrum between 3.3-3.8 GHz for 5G deployments as a sweet spot.

In December, the FCC adopted a notice of proposed rulemaking (PDF) that targeted 250-megahertz in the 3.3-3.35 portion of the 3.1-3.55 GHz band, to remove non-federal users as a step toward commercial services.  

NTIA’s earlier report identifying the 100-megahertz between 3.45-3.55 GHz as a “good candidate for sharing,” received tempered industry applause, with groups indicating more was needed. 5G Americas at the time noted more than 70 countries around the world agreed to target 5G spectrum at 3.3 GHz and up “often with 200, 300 or more MHz of spectrum.”

FCC Commissioner Michael O’Rielly took issue last month with NTIA’s report, which ultimately found more study was needed. At the time, O’Rielly said on Twitter that the report was weak, extended “decades old agency slow-rolling” and urged the administration to step in.

O’Rielly’s renomination to the FCC was abruptly revoked last week by President Trump, though GOP senators are reportedly lobbying to have it reinstated.