C-band debate poised to pivot: analysts

While the C-Band Alliance (CBA) proposal for the 3.7-4.2 GHz band remains in the lead, other proposals for this important midband spectrum could catch up, according to analysts at New Street Research.

The 3.7-4.2 GHz band, also referred to as the C-band, is seen as one of the best chances for the U.S. terrestrial wireless industry to get midband spectrum for 5G. However, while the wireless industry deems 100 MHz per carrier as the ideal for 5G, the current satellite companies occupying the C-band say they realistically are only able to relinquish 200 megahertz out of the total 500 megahertz for the sake of 5G.

In a note to investors, New Street Analysts said that while the CBA plan at the beginning of the year appeared to be the only horse in the race, they've heard rumblings of discontent over the last several months about the C-band plan, mostly from other stakeholders but also from some in Congress.

This past week, “all three Republican Commissioners spoke about C-band and at least two of them, we thought, expressed a view signaling concerns about the CBA proposal, a willingness to consider alternative proposals, and a willingness to take more time to decide if such time would yield a better outcome in terms of more MHz reallocated to 5G,” wrote the team of New Street analysts that includes policy adviser Blair Levin.

FCC Chairman Ajit Pai, at an American Communications Association (ACA) event, acknowledged that the 3.7-4.2 GHz band has attracted a lot of interest, but it’s important that the commission study the puzzle pieces and get it right rather than moving too quickly. Pai has been meeting with a lot of the stakeholders and didn’t at the ACA event commit to a timeframe for making a decision.

Commissioner Brenda Carr, at the WISPAmerica convention in Cincinnati, said there have been many productive conversations at the FCC and among industry about the best way to open up the C-band for terrestrial use. “One proposal on the table involves clearing around 200 MHz of the 500 MHz total to be used for mobile. I think we can do better,” he said in prepared remarks. “So I am focused right now on approaches that will clear more than 200 MHz, at least in big cities where demand for high-capacity, midband spectrum is greatest. And I think we should move forward this year with an order that gets us there.”

Together with comments made by Commissioner Michael O’Rielly, who has been engaged throughout the proceeding, one could interpret all three commissioners as being in alignment; none of them directly contradict the other and all are clear that some significant portion of the band will be reallocated to terrestrial mobile broadband, the analysts said. (They also said the Democratic commissioners are relevant but are likely to become so only later in the process.) 

RELATED: C-Band Alliance responds to backlash

The bottom line, they said: CBA is still in the lead but others could catch up. “We think the C-band debate is about to pivot,” they wrote. “One cause of the pivot could be the filing that the CBA promised the FCC to address concerns about openness, transparency, speed, tailoring the process to the unique characteristics of the C-band, and sufficient flexibility to meet the needs of all prospective buyers, including major wireless carriers, cable operators and smaller rural providers.”

Once those details are public, all the stakeholders will probably want to comment and intensify their advocacy for and against the details. Another cause of the pivot could be congressional involvement, through letters, a potential hearing or even legislation. But the most important pivot point, the analysts said, would be a competing proposal that holds the promise to more spectrum while being in the range of speed of the CBA proposal in terms of reallocation. T-Mobile would argue that its proposal does just that, but the analysts noted that they have not seen signs from the FCC staff or other stakeholders that they agree, although that could change.

RELATED: CCA: Any less than 320 MHz of C-band spectrum would be missed opportunity for 5G

Meanwhile, the CBA continues to stick to its guns, saying the 200 megahertz it’s proposing is the absolute most it can part with while still assuring adequate services for customers that rely on it for broadcasting content.

“What we heard from Commissioners this week was that they are striving to find the right solution to the thorny challenge of clearing maximum spectrum without hurting incumbent services. The CBA has been wrestling with this challenge for some time,” said C-Band Alliance spokesperson Dianne VanBeber in a statement provided to FierceWirelessTech.

“Our proposal is a balance of addressing the need for spectrum as well as the ongoing service requirements of the incumbent users of the midband—primarily the broadcasting sector. Our proposal focuses on how we can get spectrum into the hands of the wireless community within 18 to 36 months of a final FCC order—allowing the U.S. to quickly enter the race for 5G. At the same time, our proposal uniquely allows all current C-band services to continue without interruption and high quality—which is tricky given potential interference when 5G signals move in ‘next door.’ We are confident that our proposal directly responds to these two challenges. We look forward to continuing the dialogue with all of the stakeholders and building consensus on the right approach.”