Wireless industry group opposes latest spectrum reform attempt

  • The Spectrum and National Security Act is set for markup on June 18
  • The bill would reinstate the FCC’s spectrum authority
  • Cable/tech companies are on board but CTIA prefers the Spectrum Pipeline Act introduced by Republicans in March

Once more, legislation addressing some of the nation’s biggest spectrum issues is scheduled for a markup, but it’s not winning any accolades from the U.S. wireless industry’s biggest trade group.

The Spectrum and National Security Act – introduced by Senate Commerce Committee Chair Maria Cantwell (D-Washington) in April – was most recently set to be marked up on Wednesday. That was postponed and rescheduled for Tuesday, June 18.

The delay came after the heads of the Commerce Department, Department of Defense (DoD) and Joint Chiefs of Staff asked for edits to address language around dynamic spectrum sharing and spectrum studies, among other things. Their coming together signaled to some the end of a long-time inter-agency dispute.

One source familiar with the agreement said it eliminates a major logjam that has been “stopping everything” since at least 2021, making it more likely that an actual spectrum auction will get teed up. Included in Cantwell’s bill is a directive for the FCC to complete an auction of new licenses for the 12.7-13.25 GHz band.

However, the bill doesn’t offer any specific midband spectrum for the FCC to auction – most notably, the lower 3 GHz band is excluded, according to Umair Javed, SVP/Spectrum at CTIA.

Besides restoring the FCC’s auction authority for five years, the bill seeks to fund the Affordable Connectivity Program (ACP) and provide $3 billion for the rip and replace program. But it’s mostly about spectrum reform, said New Street Research analyst Blair Levin in a note for investors.

Cantwell vs. Cruz/Thune bills

Illustrating the fluidity of the situation, on Wednesday morning, Levin released a note for investors titled: “Third Time’s Not the Charm for Cantwell Spectrum/ACP Effort,” referring to the number of times it’s been queued for markup. A few hours later, he followed that up with another note titled: “Maybe the fourth time will be the charm?,” referring to the markup now scheduled for Tuesday.

Levin said the Cantwell-led legislation is more attractive to those favoring unlicensed and shared spectrum models than a bill offered by Senators Ted Cruz (R-Texas) and John Thune (R-S.D.) in March. The Cruz/Thune draft legislation is more attractive to the big wireless carriers that favor exclusive licensing.

“Our initial analysis is that while it [the Cantwell bill] keeps hope alive, we don't believe the wireless industry is on board with the agreement and it does not address all the issues raised by the Cruz/Thune bill,” Levin said.

That sentiment was confirmed by CTIA, which represents the biggest wireless carriers in the U.S.

 “The Spectrum Pipeline Act introduced by Senators Cruz, Thune and Blackburn is a better approach because it follows the historical precedent set by prior bipartisan legislation to extend the FCC’s auction authority. Those bills provided clear pipelines of spectrum, and any bill that fails to include that jeopardizes our 5G leadership and puts at risk our economic and national security,” Kelly Cole, SVP/Government Affairs at CTIA, said in a statement provided to Fierce.

Cable, tech & wireless

Generally, reactions from industry groups fell along those lines, with cable and tech companies lauding Cantwell’s deal.

WifiForward, which represents cable and tech companies, called it a “significant step forward” in breaking the logjam on spectrum legislation.

Similarly, Spectrum for the Future cheered the compromise between the DoD, Commerce Department and Joint Chiefs, with spokesperson Tamara Smith saying it would represent a “major opportunity” to make more dynamically shared spectrum available for commercial use while preserving DoD and incumbent federal agency services.

Of course, CTIA’s statement focused on the need for a “pipeline of spectrum,” which it doesn’t see addressed in the Cantwell legislation.

“America continues to fall behind China and other countries in making more spectrum available to meet 5G demand, fuel innovation across industries, and support our nation’s economic competitiveness,” said CTIA President and CEO Meredith Attwell Baker in a statement. “Any successful spectrum legislation must address this challenge with a pipeline of spectrum, just as every multi-year extension has done since the first auction, thirty years ago.”

Election year mayhem

While the DoD and Commerce Department may have hammered out their differences, there’s still no consensus on how to resolve the conflicts between the DoD and the wireless carriers that want the lower 3 GHz opened up for commercial use. And the conflicts between stakeholders favoring exclusive licensing and those who prefer shared models remain, Levin noted.

“As we move deeper into the election campaign, the challenges to achieving that consensus go up,” he concluded.