O’Rielly: ‘No more dawdling’ on efforts to procure C-band spectrum

NEW YORK—FCC Commissioner Michael O’Rielly might have been preaching to the choir at the Brooklyn 5G Summit on Thursday, but he didn’t mince words when it came to his view on the midband spectrum conundrum in the U.S.

“While the facts clearly show the U.S. leading the world in allocating and auctioning millimeter waves, our actions in the mid bands haven’t been on par,” he said. “Compare that the commission recently finished the 28 GHz auction, ended the clock phase of the 24 GHz auction last week, and is moving on to the assignment round. These auctions will result in a total of 1550 megahertz of millimeter wave spectrum being made available for 5G nationwide, but so far, the only sure thing we have in the mid bands is 3.5 GHz.”

O’Rielly wasn’t about to minimize the importance of the 3.5 GHz band—after all, he was the one who led a review of the rules at FCC Chairman Ajit Pai’s request—one that led to technical changes making the spectrum more attractive for 5G. But he said the commission needs to announce the start date for the 3.5 GHz auction soon so everyone is at least on notice as to when those mid-band licenses will be available.

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While plenty of folks are complaining about the C-Band Alliance (CBA) proposal to repurpose satellite operators’ spectrum in the 3.7-4.2 GHz band, O’Rielly suggested it’s better to get some of this spectrum allocated for 5G sooner rather than later.  

“It seems like some opponents of the market-based approach want all 500 megahertz or at least 500 megahertz in urban areas, while still somehow accommodating the various broadcast and cable operators whose programming is delivered using the spectrum,” he said.

“This seems farfetched—to nearly impossible—given the realities and equities at stake," he added. "Instead, we must be willing to adopt a plan that gets mid-band spectrum into providers’ hands as soon as possible with the appropriate protections. To facilitate this, the commission needs to finalize its review and wrap up this proceeding in the next few months. In other words, no more dawdling.”

The event where O’Rielly spoke was co-hosted by Nokia, which has been lobbying hard for mid-band spectrum for 5G in the U.S., so his words were no doubt welcome. He also didn’t shy away from taking questions from the audience, limiting his prepared remarks to allow for more Q&A time.

The commissioner noted that as someone who has been “yelling from the rooftops” about the need for mid-band spectrum for the past three years or so, “I would like to offer a hearty welcome to the late arrivers to the party and I’m certainly looking forward to hearing their constructive ideas.”

During the Q&A, O’Rielly observed that the challenges are not insurmountable in the C-Band to get to a final resolution and decisions should be made by this summer to move forward, but he added a caveat that it’s the chairman’s decision on timing. “I don’t think we’re going to get all 500 megahertz,” he added.

The entities using the airwaves today aren’t going to move to another source in the very near future, but a good portion could be made available—he’d like to see 300 megahertz or more cleared, but “we’ll see.”