FCC to Auction Mid-Band Spectrum to 5G Providers

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) is implementing new rules to auction 280 MHz of mid-band spectrum available for multiple uses, including 5G. The FCC believes that this is an imperative next step to move the nation closer to 5G and to shrink the digital divide, especially in rural communities.

The FCC’s move will make a large portion of the C-band available to authorized buyers through a public auction, allowing mobile network providers to quickly utilize the spectrum while creating revenue. This will allow for “continuous and uninterrupted delivery” of programs and content that is currently using the C-band for such operations.

The FCC has divided the band as follows: “[w]ithin the 3.7-4.2 GHz band, the FCC has is allocating the 3.7-4.0 GHz portion of the band for mobile use and 280 megahertz (3.7-3.98 GHz band) will be auctioned by the FCC for wireless services in the contiguous United States. Another 20 megahertz (3.98-4.0 GHz) will serve as a guard band while existing satellite operations will be repacked into the upper 200 megahertz of the band (4.0-4.2 GHz).”

By December 5, 2025, the auctioned spectrum will operate flexibly. The FCC will allow qualified operators to receive “accelerated relocation payments totaling $9.7 billion if they commit to, and succeed in, clearing the spectrum early.” Specifically, for the first phase of payments “operators must clear 120 megahertz of spectrum (3.7-3.82 GHz) in 46 Partial Economic Areas by December 5, 2021” and for the second phase of payments “they must clear the remaining 180 megahertz of spectrum (3.82-4.0 GHz) by December 5, 2023.” Those with the new flexible-use licenses will be held accountable for these payments and reasonable costs for relocation. As a result, the FCC is creating a Relocation Payment Clearinghouse to manage, keep track of this process and assign funds.

The FCC has also announced procedures for the auction, which is set for December 8, and is currently seeking public comment on the procedures. This includes the proposed upfront payment and minimum starting bid amounts. It also seeks to create two categories of spectrum blocks for each region of the country. These include: “five 20-megahertz blocks in the lower 100 megahertz (3.7–3.8 GHz) and nine 20-megahertz blocks in the remaining 180 megahertz (3.8– 3.98 GHz).”

The decision is part of the Commission’s 5G FAST Plan and it complies with the MOBILE NOW Act.

Spectrum auctions can be contentious.  The D.C. Circuit recently declined to review allegations that the FCC set up auction procedures to unfairly favor Dish over other providers.