Taxpayer groups unify against CBA’s ‘egregious private sale plan’ for C-band

Just as the C-Band Alliance (CBA) shared details with the FCC about its proposed clearing process for making 200 MHz (inclusive of a 20 MHz guard band) available for 5G, 13 taxpayer and free market groups are calling on the FCC to reject the CBA proposal.

“We are alarmed by this proposal and unified in our opposition to the CBA’s egregious private sale plan,” they told the FCC in a letter Wednesday.

The groups, led by the Taxpayers Protection Alliance (TPA), said that not only would the CBA’s scheme deny billions—perhaps tens of billions of dollars—in proceeds owed to the U.S. Treasury, but it would also inevitably result in years of litigation and “endless delays” in 5G deployments.

The CBA, which includes Intelsat, SES, Eutelsat Communications and Telesat, proposes to release 200 MHz of 3.7-4.2 GHz spectrum in 18-36 months. It submitted a more detailed plan (PDF) to the FCC this week that discusses how and when cleared spectrum could be made available for 5G operators and efforts to protect satellite customers that rely on the C-band for broadcasting content.

The satellite companies insist they cannot give up more than 200 MHz of the 500 MHz available in the band without risking service degradation to incumbent users, although the terrestrial wireless community has said it prefers 100 MHz per operator to make the most of the spectrum for 5G. 

Opponents to the CBA's plan, including T-Mobile, have complained (PDF) that it will result in monetary gains to the foreign satellite companies that never paid for the spectrum rights in the first place, and they want to see the FCC lead a public auction with proceeds going to the U.S. Treasury.  

While the CBA has characterized its voluntary plan as the fastest and most practical way of getting highly sought-after midband spectrum into the hands of mobile operators for 5G, several entities have said that if the FCC were to go with the CBA’s proposal, it would further tie up the spectrum because too many interested parties would file lawsuits.  

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“We look at this spectrum as a taxpayer asset,” said TPA President David Williams in an interview with FierceWirelessTech. Whether TPA gets involved in a lawsuit or not, “we haven’t decided that.” There’s hesitation because lawsuits would only extend the problem out, but “we don’t want to see taxpayers get ripped off.”

The satellite companies were given access to the spectrum and they made investments to use it, but it’s TPA’s understanding that there was no monetary exchange for the spectrum per se. At the time of the allocation, the FCC had no way of knowing the value of the spectrum, i.e., that the internet would emerge and 5G would need it.

CBA provided a statement to FierceWirelessTech in response to the groups’ letter to the FCC. “The overriding goal of good spectrum policy is to move spectrum to its highest and best use as quickly as possible at the lowest possible cost to society,” said Peter Pitsch, head of Advocacy and Government Relations of CBA, in the statement. “The market-based approach advocated by the C-Band Alliance is the best means of achieving that goal: the larger consumer and societal benefits of quickly enabling 5G use of this ‘goldilocks’ midband spectrum dwarf any benefits of revenues gained from a public auction at some point years in the future. This approach is transparent requiring FCC oversight and approval.”

The FCC ultimately decides what to do, although it could always be subjected to a congressional mandate. FCC Chairman Ajit Pai acknowledged the complexity of the situation during an appearance at an American Communications Association summit last month where he said it’s important for the FCC to make the right decision rather than “make a right now decision,” so to speak, because there are so many interests that need to be accommodated.