2020 Preview: Mid-band spectrum finally inches to U.S. market

While some thought 2019 would be the break-out year for mid-band spectrum in the U.S., it’s really 2020 when the middle of the spectrum “layer cake” comes to fruition.

That’s because the 3.5 GHz auction of the licensed portion of the Citizens Broadband Radio Services (CBRS) band will commence on June 25, 2020, and the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has said it will start a C-band auction, for the 3.7-4.2 GHz spectrum, before the end of 2020.

While the 3.5 GHz band was allocated for 5G in other countries, the U.S. chose to use it for CBRS, which involves sharing parts of it with incumbent federal radar users. Granted, a swath of the band will be up for auction in 2020, but the way the band is structured, carriers view it as a encumbered mid-band play compared to what they might get through the C-band.

The problem is satellite operators currently use the C-band to deliver services for broadcasters, radio stations and others, so the FCC needs to decide how it’s going to motivate the satellite players to relocate before the wireless carriers can bid on it and eventually move in.

The hunt is on for other sources of mid-band spectrum. In December, the FCC proposed changes to the rules governing the 3.1-3.55 GHz band, which would be the first step to making spectrum in that band available for advanced commercial services, including 5G. The commission noted the move was in line with what the Mobile NOW Act, passed by Congress last year, requires.

All the major carriers in the U.S. have shown interest in more mid-band spectrum. Of course, if T-Mobile were to get the OK to merge with Sprint—and that’s still being decided—then it would get access to a bevy of 2.5 GHz spectrum—hence, the middle of its layer cake that T-Mobile likes to talk about. However, T-Mobile has been heavily involved in the C-band proceeding since the get-go, so it has a stake in how that turns out, as well.