Lack of auction authority stymied FCC in 2023

Considering that the FCC did not have its auction authority for most of 2023, one might get the impression that 2023 was a dud when it comes to spectrum.

However, some important events came to pass. The wireless industry lobbied much of the year for reallocation of spectrum in the 3.1-3.45 GHz band, which didn’t happen. The Biden Administration delivered a plan for a National Spectrum Strategy, which includes further study of the 3.1-3.45 GHz band. And Congress agreed to legislation so that T-Mobile can take possession of the 2.5 GHz licenses that it bought and paid for.

Lower 3 GHz

Although CTIA and other entities spent considerable time and money lobbying for a section of the lower 3 GHz band to be teed up for the wireless industry, the Department of Defense (DoD) dug in its heels and refused to budge. The DoD is the sole user of that spectrum and doesn’t want to give it up.

During testimony in an oversight hearing earlier this month, National Telecommunications and Information Association (NTIA) Administrator Alan Davidson said the DoD’s study of the lower 3 GHz band looked at a very specific question about “could we use the band right now, and the answer is no… They do not see a way forward on that.”

However, the DoD report was based on a limited study that did not look at some of the other questions about what it would take to share. For example, it didn’t consider whether they could use part of the spectrum if funding were available to relocate a system, “and that’s what we’re going to study,” he said.

No quick fix

In addition, the National Spectrum Strategy identified four other bands for near-term study, including in the 5 GHz range, the 7-8 GHz range, the 18 GHz band and the 37 GHz band.

While wireless carriers always argue that they need more spectrum immediately, the industry still needs time to pay down debt incurred in prior auctions, noted New Street Research (NSR) policy analyst Blair Levin in a report for investors last month. NSR believes the study period for these bands will be several years, with the auction planning adding another couple, putting the next big spectrum auction occurring no earlier than the second half of the next Administration, or the 2027-2028 time frame.

Near-term opportunities

In a report this month, Levin identified several places where wireless carriers could improve their relative spectrum positions in the near term.

Congress recently passed legislation that would give T-Mobile the 2.5 GHz licenses it won in Auction 108. The licenses were in limbo because FCC Chairman Jessica Rosenworcel said the FCC would be violating the Communications Act if it were to grant the licenses when its auction authority was not reinstated.

For AT&T, it could get additional spectrum for use on its FirstNet network. There’s an effort to convince the FCC to allocate 4.9 GHz spectrum to a single network. Although that faces opposition from T-Mobile and Verizon, among others, AT&T may succeed in gaining an improved spectrum position in the relative near term, Levin noted.

Another spectrum play involves the potential reauction of spectrum originally auctioned in the 2014 AWS-3 auction. The FCC provided bidding credits to “designated entities” (DEs) and two DEs affiliated with Dish won licenses that later were returned to the FCC. The national carriers are already using that type of spectrum, and Levin said he expects the FCC will reauction the AWS-3 spectrum soon after the FCC’s auction authority is restored.

In addition, the FCC could quickly put the 12 GHz band on the agenda, which could benefit Dish. Dish has argued that it should be entitled to use the spectrum for fixed wireless broadband, a move opposed by SpaceX. But NSR said it’s probable that the FCC will move forward on this in the first half of 2024, and it’s more likely than not that the FCC will allow fixed terrestrial services in the band.