Two long-anticipated 5G announcements are set to become official today, as FCC Chairman Ajit Pai plans to announce three new millimeter wave spectrum auctions for later this year, along with the creation of a government fund to improve broadband service in rural areas. The announcements, previewed by Pai in a statement to media, will be formalized at a White House event later today.
The FCC’s “5G FAST Plan” to auction 37GHz, 39GHz, and 47GHz millimeter wave spectrum was feted last September, then officially approved in December with a vague “second half of 2019” date. Since then, the agency has successfully concluded a $700 million 28GHz auction, and is presently conducting a similarly drawn-out 24GHz auction with nearly $1.9 billion in existing bids. FCC officials haven’t identified either auction’s successful bidders, and won’t until the 24GHz auction ends.
Today, the 37GHz, 39GHz, and 47GHz auctions are expected to be scheduled for December 10. While the specific bidding formats selected for the auctions will determine how long they take, the agency has shown a preference for numerous rounds of bidding that require between a month and two months to complete. Consequently, the new 5G spectrum might take until later in 2020 to actually come into use.
It’s unclear at this point how desirable these blocks of higher-frequency millimeter wave spectrum will be. Though the spectrum promises incredible bandwidth and the potential of ultra low latency using closely spaced “small cell” towers, cellular device and tower equipment makers have been working through practical issues to provide 5G service on millimeter wave frequencies. Thus far, Verizon has stuck largely with lower 28GHz bands while AT&T has opted for higher 39GHz frequencies. Samsung’s Galaxy S10 5G promises to support both.
Pai is also using the event to formalize the Rural Digital Opportunity Fund, a $20.4 billion reallocation of existing FCC subsidies toward providing internet access to up to 4 million unserved homes. The FCC has made “closing the digital divide” a priority, estimating that nearly 30 million Americans — including people on tribal lands and in rural areas — still lack access to high-speed internet, while 97% of urban Americans have that access today.
The Rural Fund will incentivize companies to build fiber optic lines in unserved parts of the United States, using an auction process to determine who will receive government dollars. Fiber cables could be used to provide direct wired service to rural users, or they could form a backbone for 5G wireless signals, enabling service to spread beyond the sometimes challenging terrain where rural lines are installed.
Individual carriers have already taken tentative steps toward expanding their millimeter wave and rural holdings. T-Mobile and Sprint have recently promised to dramatically expand rural coverage if their merger is approved, while all of the major and many smaller U.S. carriers are now believed to be bidding in the FCC’s existing millimeter wave auctions. Today’s announcements are thus likely to spur further movement in both initiatives.