Rosenworcel: 2.5 GHz spectrum key for 5G in rural areas

Wireless carriers would benefit if the FCC were to conduct an incentive auction for the 2.5 GHz airwaves that were allocated years ago for educational purposes, according to FCC Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel.

Her comments came during a fireside chat with Rick Boucher, former U.S. representative from Virginia, as part of an event organized by the Internet Innovation Alliance. The FCC last year adopted a notice of proposed rulemaking to consider updating the framework for licensing Educational Broadband Service (EBS) spectrum in the 2.5 GHz band.

Even though Sprint touts a boatload of 2.5 GHz spectrum, there’s a lot of EBS spectrum that lies fallow across about half of the U.S., mostly in rural areas. Rosenworcel is most interested in closing what she calls the “homework gap,” where many students don’t have access to broadband to do their homework, a problem she hopes the 2.5 GHz band will help fix.

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“It is the largest contiguous swath of spectrum below 3 GHz,” she said Tuesday. “It’s ideal for new 5G uses, so let’s make the way that we distribute it across this country transparent. Right now, it’s anything but, and if we were to develop an incentive auction here, we could make these airwaves available on a more uniform basis for lots of carriers. I think that’s a good thing.”

She added that 2.5 GHz is internationally harmonized for commercial mobile use. It’s being used in China and Japan for broadband mobile, and it represents the “sweet spot”—the right mix of coverage and capacity that’s essential to making 5G a reality in rural areas.

“This is the spectrum that can make 5G happen in our rural communities” because it doesn’t require as many facilities as millimeter wave band spectrum, she said. “I think this is a really big piece of the puzzle for 5G, especially for our rural communities.”  

She reiterated that when it comes to midband spectrum for 5G, the U.S. lags behind China, South Korea, Italy, the U.K. and Spain.

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Staging an incentive auction where current 2.5 GHz license holders—many of which are educational institutions—are given the option to keep their holdings or give them back to the government in exchange for money would be one way to go. Rosenworcel, a Democrat, said she believes the FCC has the authority to do the kind of incentive auction she’s talking about, although Congress also could pass legislation with specific conditions, setting up a fund where the revenues don’t revert to the Treasury but go toward new initiatives to bridge the homework gap.

Asked about the government shutdown’s effect on the FCC’s work toward making more midband spectrum available, she said it's not helping matters. The agency isn’t putting out new information about any midband spectrum auctions, it’s not reviewing merger proposals and it’s not addressing the sale of mobile phone location data, to name a few.