FCC cites statute for not issuing special temporary licenses to T-Mobile

In an unprecedented event, the spectrum auction authority of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) lapsed on March 9. And this has caused a big problem for T-Mobile because FCC Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel says she does not currently have authority to grant the carrier the 2.5 GHz spectrum licenses that it purchased at auction last summer.

On March 24, T-Mobile filed a request with the FCC for special temporary authority (STA) to use those 2.5 GHz licenses anyway.

The FCC has not filed any public response to T-Mobile’s request for STA. But the FCC’s press secretary sent Fierce Wireless the following statement.

“I wanted to elaborate on the Chairwoman’s recent Congressional testimony about the topic. 47 U.S. Code § 309, subsection 11 clearly states that ‘The authority of the Commission to grant a license or permit under this subsection shall expire March 9, 2023’; so, any special temporary authority the FCC could have would flow from this section of the statute, which as you know is still currently expired.”

In late June, Rosenworcel testified at a Communications and Technology Subcommittee hearing titled, “Oversight of the FCC.”

At that hearing, she said, "We are right now tying ourselves in knots trying to figure out how to get these licenses out, and the precedent we have here is complicated because issuing these licenses now could violate the Anti-Deficiency Act, which is a criminal statute,” according to Roll Call

At that same hearing, Energy and Commerce Committee Ranking Member Frank Pallone (D-NJ) said, “The agency’s lapsed spectrum authority not only deprives the Commission of a core agency function, but it impacts a massive sector of our economy and jeopardizes our global wireless leadership. I’m proud of the bipartisan action this Committee has taken to rectify the situation, and we will not rest until we get that process back on track.”

The subcommittee has submitted proposed legislation to Congress. But no bill has been brought to the floor for a vote. And even if a bill does pass the House, it will also have to pass the Senate, where there might be some opposition. According to Roll Call, Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) doesn’t like a part of the bill related to some spectrum auction proceeds being used for broadband expansion, which he said was "unneeded and duplicative." 

Meanwhile, T-Mobile is stuck without access to the 2.5 GHz spectrum that it purchased for $304 million in last summer’s auction. **See update at bottom of story.

World Radio Conference

More concerning to the larger telecommunications community, is the fact that the periodic World Radio Conference (WRC) is scheduled to convene in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, in November.

China recently said it will be the first country to allocate spectrum in the 6 GHz band for 5G and 6G services.

While China is moving forward with its spectrum plans and speaks with one voice on the topic, in the U.S. the FCC doesn’t even have auction authority. Telecom stakeholders are concerned that China will dominate discussions at the WRC and set global spectrum strategies.

A blog post from the trade group CTIA said, “The U.S. mobile industry has watched with increasing alarm as other countries allocate significantly more mid-band spectrum for 5G services. News [on June 28] validated these concerns: China, which was already well ahead of the United States in terms of prime 5G mid-band allocations, is doubling down on its 5G future, opening most of the 6 GHz band for licensed mobile use. This step shows China’s serious commitment to world-leading 5G networks and establishing an edge in developing emerging technologies that depend on high-performance connectivity.”

**7/7/2023 update: After this story published, T-Mobile reached out, referencing a letter sent to the Chairwoman on June 16 from five House Democrats asking her to grant the STAs. And it also provided a link to a T-Mobile filing this week, laying out T-Mobile's legal argument for why it thinks the Chairwoman has the authority to grant its 2.5 GHz licenses.