Speaking at the Mobile World Congress today in Barcelona, Spain, U.S. FCC chairman Ajit Pai announced that the commission is prepared to quickly make 5G-ready wireless spectrum available through auctions. The only hitch: Pai says that Congressional action by May 13 will be necessary to avoid delaying the 5G rollout process.
Telecom industry leaders have identified certain chunks of radio spectrum as critically important for 5G, engineering upcoming 5G chipsets and antennas specifically around these radio frequencies. Mid-frequency bands or “mid-bands” include both 3.5GHz and 3.7-4.2GHz ranges, while high-frequency or millimeter wave (mmWave) bands include 24-37GHz ranges.
Pai addressed each of the bands at MWC, beginning by noting that the FCC has already allocated 150Mhz of industry-shared spectrum within the 3.5GHz band, thereby allowing 5G devices and other applications to use it. Since the telecom industry identified the large swath of nearby 3.7 to 4.2GHz spectrum as important in empowering 5G phones and computers, Pai said that the FCC plans to open those frequencies to 5G: “In the coming months, I intend to propose the next steps needed to make 3.7 to 4.2Ghz spectrum available for commercial terrestrial use.”
Higher-frequency radio spectrum is considered to be particularly important for fixed 5G — wireless broadband in homes and offices. So far, Pai noted that the FCC has already allocated spectrum in the 24-47GHz mmWave ranges for terrestrial use, setting the stage for 5G experimentation. Three days ago, the FCC granted Samsung the world’s first approval for 28GHz base stations, which will be used in Verizon’s 2018 rollout of 5G in the United States.
While the FCC has already approved resales of existing 28GHz and 39GHz spectrum held by satellite providers, Pai hinted at industry concerns over delays by noting that FCC auctions could be faster. To that end, Pai said the FCC was ready for a November auction of 28GHz spectrum, “followed immediately by an auction of spectrum in the 24GHz band.” But he noted a caveat: “In order for us to start an auction in November, we need the U.S. Congress to pass legislation by May 13 addressing the handling of up-front payments by auction bidders. … If we don’t get the problem fixed by May 13, our efforts to realize America’s 5G future will be delayed.”
Pai also noted that the FCC is also seeing positive results from mobile experiments in unlicensed spectrum, including 5GHz and 6GHz, the former sharing spectrum with Wi-Fi. He suggested that the FCC will have more to say on 6GHz by the end of this year.
Additionally, Pai addressed the subjects of 5G infrastructure development and the U.S. regulatory environment, including the controversial debate over net neutrality. Pai noted that the FCC is reviewing all of its infrastructure regulations, getting rid of old rules that no longer make sense in light of 5G’s dependence on small cells, and creating new financial incentives. As examples, Pai said that there’s no need for historic review processes to replace old utility poles with new utility poles, and that government needs to heavily incentivize companies to transition from old copper lines to new fiber lines, as 5G will demand “much, much more” fiber than ever before to provide the backbone for wireless services.
Pai’s announcement appeared to show the U.S. commitment to rapidly rolling out 5G at a critical juncture in its development, as only hours earlier, Nokia CEO Rajeev Suri said that it’s “a neck-and-neck race between the U.S. and China to see who will be first to deploy,” and deemed mid-band spectrum allocation “an urgent priority for policy makers in the U.S.” However, it remains to be seen whether the presently dysfunctional U.S. Congress will heed Pai’s warning and enable the FCC to auction new spectrum, or risk falling behind China and other countries in the 5G race.