Seldom does a frequency come along that is perfect for an evolving platform. Such is the case with C-band and 5G. 3.5 GHz is about as near a perfect band as one can get for enhanced mobile broadband (eMBB). It has ideal signal propagation characteristics along with the necessary bandwidth to accommodate 5G technologies (such as advanced carrier aggregation and network slicing). Initially, the FCC was looking at 150 megahertz of spectrum there. But there is talk of having a 500 megahertz chunk refarmed. That has some people worried.
C-band actually is the space from 4 GHz to 8 GHz, as defined by the IEEE. However, it has been interpreted to include the CBRS and satellite players. That range is from 3.7 GHz to 4.2 GHz (satellite downlinks) and 3.55 GHz to 3.7 GHz (CBRS). The higher frequencies (5.925 GHz to 6.425 GHz) are used for satellite uplinks. Much of the attention the C-band is getting is around the satellite spectrum that programmers use to distribute their content/channels to broadcasters and cable operators. That is also where much of the discussion is happening.
It also contains the 5.8 GHz ISM band (5.725 GHz – 5.875 GHz), IEEE 802.11a Wi-Fi (5.15 GHz to 5.875 GHz – geographic region dependent), as well as some amateur radio and amateur satellite operations. And, let us not forget the military, which has some wideband communications as well as RADARs operating there. All in all, that band has a fair amount of players but is, overall, underused. Therefore, the pressure is on to refarm some of that spectrum. It just so happens that what is up for refarming has some critical issues.
The FCC is offering up some frequencies in that band. As I mentioned previously, the initial offering was 150 megahertz in the CBRS frequencies (from 3.55 to 3.7 GHz). However, that is hardly going to make a dent in the 5G demand curve. Therefore, the FCC is considering up to 500 megahertz (currently it is 370 megahertz).
Those clamoring for a piece of the C-band pie are quick to say that they will not have any effect on the incumbents. However, that view is not universal. Of course, the incumbent players are going to protect their turf, vehemently.
Some of that concern is valid. As well, some of the reasons for freeing up spectrum in that space are also valid. Some of the spectrum in the C-Band is lightly used. Other is for critical communications. The critical communications spectrum is not up for refarming but there is concern about interference by new applications.
Again, those that want the spectrum say it is not an issue. Those that have the spectrum say it is. Early tests have, generally, shown it is an issue. As far back as 2008, there was some concern that broadband wireless access (BWA) could interfere with satellite downlink signals (then it was WiMax). It also can affect aircraft radar altimeters as it is assigned the frequency band 4.2 GHz – 4.4 GHz. Both of these cases were proven valid. Recent cases have shown similar results. However, it goes deeper than just technicalities. Eventually, the interference issues will be resolved.
Some question the C-Band Alliance’s (CBA) motives and there appears to be dissention among the ranks. A citizen’s watchdog group, the Taxpayers Protection Alliance make the case that the CBA has no control over the frequencies. And, recently, Eutelsat withdrew from the alliance stating “it did not align with some of its fellow European satellite operators on certain issues.” What that exactly means is up for discussion, however, the fact that they withdrew raises some concerns.
CBA appears to be profit-driven. If successful, and it can sell some spectrum, the value of it is in the billions of dollars. But there is also some question that the CBA has the right to sell C-band spectrum. The Taxpayers Protection Alliance raised that issue recently, and if that is true, it presents a very interesting enigma.
Here is what the Taxpayer Protection Alliance (TPA) brought up:
Myth – CBA has the right and ability to sell the C-band spectrum on the secondary market because the four satellite companies that comprise it, own the spectrum.
FACT – CBA’s members do not own the C-band spectrum. The spectrum was licensed to these companies for free by the U.S. government. The CBA companies operate the spectrum, but only at the pleasure of the U.S. Government, consumers, and taxpayers and always under the supervision of the FCC. The CBA lacks the power to dispose of the spectrum as it wishes. It also lacks the power to repurpose it on its own. And yet, the CBA continues to lobby the FCC to allow it to sell that which it does not own.
Myth – The CBA plan to sell the C-Band spectrum on the secondary market is the option most likely to quickly achieve 5G deployment.
FACT – The CBA plan, if approved, would result in a morass of litigation, keeping the C-band spectrum locked up and unusable for 5G deployment…or anything else. The structure of a secondary market-sale endows the seller with the authority to determine who buys. Those who hold the current license – in this case, all four of CBA’s members – are incented to sell only to the highest bidder, side-lining those who may be better equipped, but less financed. This is especially true, given that the spectrum is useless to a prospective buyer absent coordination among existing licensees to ensure that the band is sufficiently clear. The CBA plan does not just welcome litigation, it invites it. The fastest, most efficient way to reallocate the C-band spectrum is through an open, public auction overseen by the FCC. It would be fair, competitive and completely transparent, and it would be consistent with FCC precedent.
Myth – The CBA plan would lead to the privatization of spectrum, which would result in the most efficient, cost-effective use of resources currently owned by the government.
FACT – While privatization almost always results in the best allocation of resources, the CBA plan is no ordinary privatization scheme. Historically and across sectors, privatization has entailed prospective private owners paying the government to transfer resource ownership to them, making taxpayers whole in the process and facilitating the rise of market pricing. When prospective owners are not required to compensate the current owner, incentives are inverted and the perceived payoff associated with entering into contracts with the government increases. Therefore, botched “privatization” in fact increases the clout of government.
Myth – The CBA plan won’t lead to a “windfall” for its member companies.
FACT – Citizens Against Government Waste (CAGW), which routinely analyzes government programs, issued a report detailing the massive taxpayer rip-off posed by the CBA scheme currently before the FCC. CAGW’s conclusion: $60 billion to the CBA member companies and “no guarantee taxpayers would see any of the revenues generated from the sale; incumbent users [of the spectrum] are not assured they will be made whole; and there would be limited FCC oversight.” CBA has stated that they will make a “voluntary contribution” to the U.S. Treasury, which is not nearly enough for the value of the spectrum.
This is a different side of the C-band battle. On the other side, and most vocal, are the carriers. The Competitive Carriers Association (CCA) and the ACA Connects are bullish on refarming. They recently put forth a new proposal to the FCC, to wriggle some of that spectrum.
And, there is more. For example, government entities like the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) are struggling to keep important spectrum that a wide variety of entities want to use for 5G.
As well, carriers have their own agenda. For example, T-Mo has been pushing a proposal that calls for the FCC to take ownership of the entire C-Band (could the TPA be right?) and auction at least 300 megahertz of it to wireless network operators and other 5G players.
T-Mobile is not alone in this. While not as vocal as T-Mo, Verizon is pressuring FCC Chairman Ajit Pai to “move forward quickly to make spectrum in the 3.7 GHz to 4.2 GHz band available and to get a portion of this currently underutilized spectrum in the hands of 5G providers who stand ready to deploy.” Similarly, AT&T officials recently “urged the Commission to expeditiously resolve the C-Band proceeding and make that critical mid-band spectrum available for rapid broadband deployment.”
Now, as I mentioned earlier, the C-band is underused and it is the perfect vehicle for eMBB. Getting a slice of that spectrum has the potential to move mobile broadband off the dime and keep the United States in with the rest of the pack with 5G deployments.
However, it needs to be done correctly, i.e. not to profit anyone as a primary objective. The band needs a close scrutinization and each and every incumbent needs to present its case for keeping their share. If the case has less merit, or is exaggerated, or padded, that needs to be addressed in the analysis.
Likewise, the panting wolves who want that spectrum need to have a plan. How will they use that spectrum and for what. And they only get what the need and not be able to stash spectrum as has been the case with other bands.
C-band is an excellent resource for 5G’s eMBB. At this stage, the entire 4 GHz -8 GHz band needs extensive analysis. If this is done correctly and expeditiously, 5G eMBB can receive a fresh, new resource.