FCC sets October start date for 3.45 GHz auction

Bidding in the next U.S. auction for mid-band spectrum, in the 3.45 GHz band, is slated to start October 5.

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) released a Public Notice (PDF) Wednesday, establishing application and bidding procedures for Auction 110.

“This is a critical step toward delivering on the promise of 5G,” said FCC Acting Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel in a statement. “This auction will bring us closer to 5G service that is fast, secure, resilient, and most importantly, available across the country.”

The FCC set a reserve price of about $14.7 billion for auction proceeds, which need to cover expected costs of sharing and relocating existing federal users in the 3.45-3.55 GHz band.

Auction 110 involves up to 4,060 flexible-use licenses, with 100 MHz divided into ten 10-megahertz channels. Like C-band, its licensed by geographic areas know as Partial Economic Areas (PEAs), and the auction format includes a clock phase followed by assignment phase where participants bid on specific frequency assignments. However, it does differ in that coordination requirements for blocks in the same category could vary based on PEA.  

Some groups, like WISPA had advocated for spectrum to be licensed on a smaller county-size basis and wanted to follow the CBRS auction as a guide to encourage greater participation from smaller entities. Instead, Auction 110 includes smaller channel blocks and the FCC limited the amount any single bidder could get in a PEA to 40 MHz.

RELATED: FCC tees up 3.45 GHz for mid-band 5G spectrum auction later this year

Congress had directed the FCC to auction the 3.45 GHz airwaves by December 31, 2021. In recent meetings with FCC officials, T-Mobile suggested the auction be pushed back until later this year to give potential participants time to analyze more data provided by the DoD and NTIA regarding the impact of existing users’ continued operations.

Mid-band spectrum is largely viewed as key for 5G services – offering more capacity for speeds than lower bands, but better propagation for distance and coverage than high-band millimeter wave.

This will represent the FCC’s third mid-band spectrum auction since last year. It follows auctions for priority access licenses (PAL) in the shared 3.5 GHz Citizens Broadband Radio Service (CBRS) and the recent record C-band auction for spectrum at 3.7-3.98 GHz.

While the adjacent bands have similar characteristics, each has come with their own hurdles. C-band saw heated debate in terms of moving satellite operators out of the band, while CBRS has a unique tiered sharing paradigm among federal incumbent, priority access licensees, and general authorized access (GAA) users.

The amount available for exclusive use, as well as power levels have also varied.

For the 3.45-3.55 GHz band, there are places known as Cooperative Planning Areas (CPAs) and Periodic Use Areas (PUAs), where license winners will need to coordinate with incumbent federal military users who need to maintain or utilize the spectrum either at the specified location or during certain periods of time.

RELATED: Carriers continue to evaluate the 3.45 GHz band

Auction 110 includes 406 PEAs, and the FCC said in most of those “new licensees generally will have unrestricted use of all ten frequency blocks.”

In a May filing with the FCC, AT&T said CPAs would limit 5G deployments in license areas covering about 22% of the population. And according to T-Mobile, together with PUAs would impact around 120 PEAs up for auction.  

Recently, executives at T-Mobile and Verizon indicated they were still evaluating the band, including potential technical and interference issues, as well as a desire for more information from the DoD.

Last week, the NTIA and FCC released coordination procedures (PDF) for the 3.45-3.55 GHz band, as well as transition plans and additional DoD data.