2019 Preview: Midband spectrum takes center stage

Editor’s Note: This article is part of our 2019 Preview feature, which looks at the big topics facing the industry next year. Click here for the 2019 preview in the wireless industry, click here for the 2019 preview in the video industry and click here for the 2019 preview in the wireline industry.

While progress was made in the 3.5 gigahertz Citizens Broadband Radio Service space in 2018, all eyes are on the 3.7-4.2 GHz band, also known as the C-Band, as the industry moves into 2019.

Some call it the “Goldilocks” of spectrum: not too high and not too low, but with a nice mix of capacity and coverage characteristics that make it just right.

Previously, the 3.5 GHz band was the midband spectrum that captured the industry’s attention, with the FCC mulling over proposed rule changes during most of 2018 until it adopted a Report and Order in October. The changes it adopted mostly made it more accommodating to 5G, but it still offers only 70 MHz of licensed spectrum available for an auction that has yet to be set, and it’s connected to a complex sharing framework.

CTIA and others have been pushing for the U.S. to free up larger blocks of midband spectrum, and they’ve been looking at the 3.7-4.2 GHz band for that. Yet there are some tricky machinations involved there. For one, it’s already occupied by fixed satellite operators whose customers use it for distributing TV and radio programming across the country, and they’re not about to give that up—at least, not all the 500 MHz they have at their disposal.

However, the satellite players are willing to give up 200 MHz—180 MHz plus a 20 MHz guard band. The C-Band Alliance, which is composed of the four satellite operators that provide the majority of C-Band satellite services in the U.S., has proposed clearing up to 200 MHz of spectrum for licensed terrestrial use by selling it in a secondary market approach, and it’s positioning it as the only way of making C-Band downlink spectrum available for 5G deployment soon enough for the U.S. to win the race to 5G. C-Band Alliance members say they can make it available 18 to 36 months after a final FCC order, which could be much faster than alternative ways of freeing up the spectrum that might involve lengthy regulatory and court battles.

The wireless industry is faced with a bit of a conundrum: Go along with the C-Band Alliance proposal or something close to it and get on the order of 200 MHz sooner rather than later, do something on the order of what T-Mobile is proposing or something else entirely. Ultimately, the decision will be in the hands of the FCC.