FCC sets bidding procedures for 3.5 GHz PAL auction

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) voted unanimously on Friday to establish application and bidding procedures for the auction of the 3.5 GHz band, which starts June 25.

FCC Chairman Ajit Pai noted that the auction, known as Auction 105, will offer more than 22,000 licenses, the most ever offered in a single auction. The 3.5 GHz Priority Access Licenses (PALs) up for auction also represent the earliest opportunity for most U.S. wireless operators to get mid-band spectrum expressly for 5G. 

It hasn’t always been a straight line in getting to this point, something commissioners alluded to in their statements.  

“It’s an impressive testament to the speed of technological development in the wireless sector that 5G was barely on the radar when the Commission began re-imagining the way we use this band,” Pai said. “But now, because the FCC made necessary mid-course corrections to reflect changes in the marketplace, the 3.5 GHz auction will help make this band a primary avenue for deploying 5G services.”

Those mid-course corrections came after Pai became chairman. Under the previous administration’s FCC Chairman, Tom Wheeler, the commission had voted to pursue a different path, of which the biggest wireless operators weren’t the biggest fans. When Pai took over the chairman’s role, he appointed fellow Republican Commissioner Mike O’Rielly as the point person to reconfigure how the band would go to market.

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O’Rielly said he’s proud of the structure that emerged, with the auction to include 10 MHz, county-sized licenses with standard license terms (10 years instead of the initial three), providing potential bidders with confidence that, if they invest and follow the rules, they won’t be at risk of losing their licenses and investments.

Wireless operators have expressed interest in both the General Authorized Access (GAA) unlicensed portion of the Citizens Broadband Radio Service (CBRS) band and PAL licenses. Cable operators also have been active participants in the proceeding, with Charter Communications recently urging (PDF) the FCC to address potential harmful interference between future C-band licensees and CBRS users, something O’Rielly seemed to acknowledge in his statement.

Democratic Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel, who was on the commission during the earlier vote under the Obama administration, said Friday’s vote was bittersweet. “It never should have taken us this long to get here,” she said in a statement. “We started down this road five years ago … During the intervening years we hemmed and hawed and revisited some of the fundamentals of our new framework. We lost our nerve and in key ways retreated back to the old. Then we claimed that these changes made this portion of our airwaves more 5G friendly. But the honest truth is that these changes exposed our lack of imagination and a misunderstanding of what 5G is, what it needs and what it can do.”

Commissioner Geoffrey Starks, who was appointed to the commission last year, said this summer’s auction sets the stage for consumers to begin to realize the benefits of the spectrum and noted that consumers already have access to smartphones from Apple, Google and Samsung that have the capability of using 3.5 GHz spectrum. 

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AT&T’s Executive Vice President of Regulatory & State External Affairs Joan Marsh applauded the FCC for continuing to move forward with making this mid-band spectrum available for commercial use. 

“The Commission is to be commended for working collaboratively across government agencies and the wireless industry to develop a unique spectrum sharing solution that accommodates government incumbents while permitting new licensed and unlicensed users,” she stated.